This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a group of men—some atheists, some Christians, some Jews; some conservatives, some progressives, some centrists—from completely different geographical, cultural, and vocational backgrounds.

They all wanted to talk about one thing: the number of young men they know who seem purposeless and lost. For some of them, the problem was pressing because it was about their own sons. For most, it was about their nephews or godsons or the sons of their friends and neighbors.

In most cases, they weren’t talking about the sort of things people used to worry about with boys and young men. They weren’t concerned about gang violence or drug addiction or drag racing or street fights. They weren’t even talking about sexual promiscuity or binge drinking. They were talking about something quite different: a kind of hopelessness, a lack of ambition, in some cases even to leave the house at all, much less to go out into the world and start families of their own.

One way to identify this problem is to follow the old tried-and-true path of blaming the next generation for laziness and being coddled. You know you are getting old not when you see the first gray hairs or when your muscles ache from picking up a sock on the floor, but when you see Instagram memes for your generation showing streetlights at dusk with the words Hey Gen Z, this was the app that told us when to come home.

Usually this kind of You kids get off my lawn (or Get on your own lawn instead of gaming on the couch) mentality is vapid—a mixture of self-deceiving nostalgia with We’re better than you generational narcissism.

Plus, those of us who are actually around young men and women know these stereotypes just aren’t true. I would trust my high-school senior and junior sons more than I would have trusted myself or any of my classmates at that age. Those I know who lead campus ministries often say the same thing about the young men and women they know.

One need not give oneself over to all of that, though, to see that something really is wrong, and that, in some ways, it’s hitting boys and girls, young men and young women, differently. It’s also important that we see that this is not something wrong with the kids so much as it is something wrong for the kids.

The conversation about young men failing to launch, like the one I had with my friends, is itself rare to the point of obsolescence because it means putting away for a moment the things one is “supposed to” say in order to stay in the bounds of one’s tribe.

Article continues below

For those on the Left, it means saying what would perhaps get you reported to the HR department in some workplaces—that there really is a male/female gender binary, and that differences between men and women are more than (though not less than) cultural constructs. For those on the Right, it means acknowledging that raising boys with “traditional values” and sheltering them from liberal ideas isn’t resolving the problem—and that one of the main crises facing the country is the radicalization of too many young men into white nationalist or white-nationalist-adjacent ideas online.

There are, of course, many factors at work here—some that we don’t fully know, and won’t for years to come. But we do know some things. Jonathan Haidt’s forthcoming book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, makes what I think is the best, most convincing argument I’ve seen about the ways technology has “rewired” an entire generation, while also demonstrating how the maladies resulting from all of this tends to hit boys and girls differently.

Part of the problem, even for some Christians, is the reluctance to acknowledge what almost all of us know: One need not veer off into gender stereotypes to see that males and females—while the same in the most important ways of createdness and fallenness—are also different in some important ways too. Scripture mostly speaks to all of us, men and women, as people, but it also directs specific words to men and to women about issues that generally present more vulnerability to one group or the other.

When the apostle Paul instructed Timothy that the men should pray “without anger or disputing” (1 Tim. 2:8), he wasn’t suggesting that women are free to brawl during prayer requests. He was speaking instead to where the primary temptation to being quarrelsome would be. Likewise, when Paul and Peter directed women, particularly, to avoid costly attire and shows of wealth, finding their identity and worth not in external comparison with others but in godliness (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3–4), he was not implying that men could be clothed like peacocks. Again, generally speaking, the points of vulnerability were different between the two.

Article continues below

To address the reasons so many young men are losing their way, we must address the crises facing both sexes in the ways they are similar and in the ways they tend to be different.

That means recognizing, first of all, where the problems actually are, rather than focusing all our attention on where they used to be. The primary problem for young men right now is not usually a Lord of the Flies sort of debauchery but a sort of deadness that comes from an imagination that cannot envision another way. Yes—as in every age since Eden—there are overt sins of immorality and violence, but even those tend to be overwhelmingly digital today rather than personal. That does not make the situation easier, but more difficult to locate.

In his novel The Moviegoer, Walker Percy identified what he called “malaise”—a kind of despair that sees no place for oneself in the world. We don’t notice it, he wrote, because we’re accustomed to seeing sin in the outward commission of immoral acts. The problem now, he wrote, is that when it comes to overt sin, “the truth is that nowadays one is hardly up to it.” We always try to anesthetize whatever problem we face—often on either side of the problem, usually in ways that make it worse.

The other day I had the British historian Tom Holland on my podcast to discuss his book, Pax, on the Roman Empire. I asked him what I’m sure almost everyone has asked him lately: Why was the meme / news story of a few months ago, about how many times a day the typical man thinks about the Roman Empire, so viral? He responded with the words, “Tyrannosaurus rex.”

Holland explained that little boys (and some little girls too) tend to be mesmerized by the T. rex, the apex predator of old. Holland said that was for two reasons: power and extinction. The dinosaur is scary, fearsome, and dominant over any potential enemy—and the dinosaur no longer exists. It’s scary but can’t really hurt you anymore.

Except when it can.

Too often right now, when our young men are asking what it means to be a man, too many of us offer them Roman virtues. Some of these, at certain aspirational points, intersect with Christian virtues, but the fundamental paradigm is not just wrong-headed, it’s explicitly denounced by Jesus himself (Luke 22:25–27). The Roman way of seeking dominance and pulling rank is what Paul contradicted in, well, the Book of Romans, among other places. And the Beast of John’s Revelation is literally caesarean, and is, like the T. rex, an alpha predator (Rev. 13:4 says, “Who is like the beast and who can fight against it?”).

Article continues below

The cross is a Roman instrument of torture—a contest of power that, it seemed, would prove that the caesar always wins, so watch yourself. The Cross undoes all of that—not by giving us a different caesar to fight the old one but by giving us what we never thought we needed, a crucified King who willingly surrenders his life for the world.

That’s exactly what’s still needed today.

When I think of how I came to internalize—from earliest memory—what “success” looked like as a man, I could see my own father, of course, but I could also see the men of my church taking responsibility—taking up the offering, praying for the lost, powering up their chainsaws for disaster relief after a hurricane. I could see the man who stayed faithful to his wife through years of cancer; the man who kept loving his prodigal kids even after others thought they’d embarrassed him.

And what is really key is that they didn’t leave us little boys out of it. There were rites of passage, points where we knew that we had made a transition from some kind of boyhood to some kind of manhood. That transition was clearly not about feats of strength or locker-room-talk sexual immorality but about the ways we were now expected to model self-control, to direct our lives toward serving the rest of the body.

When that’s missing, how do young men know the difference between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—other than how much money one has to spend on one’s passions? More than that, how do young men know how to belong—not just as human beings or as Christians in general, but specifically as men who are expected to define manhood not in terms of self-satisfaction but in terms of membership, responsibility, sacrifice, and fidelity?

When we ignore this question, we ignore the ways the next generation is hurting. And we leave them to the old, dead gods who can only destroy them.

If a young man doesn’t know how to take up the cross of Christ to follow him, he will often take up the hammer of Thor, to follow him. If by default the model of mature manhood that we give is that of Barabbas, not that of Jesus, if our model of manhood looks more like the crucifiers than the Crucified, we shouldn’t be surprised if what we end up with is a quest for pretend caesars and pretend harems. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, if the skeleton of a dead Tyrannosaurus looks more powerful than “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6, ESV).

Article continues below

And with that, we end up with many more who don’t want to go that pagan way, are resisting it, but are caught, as Percy warned, between a surging but awful paganism and a dead and lifeless Christendom. The result is despair.

There’s too much at stake for that.

Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.