One of the worst trends in our culture today is the dominance of identity politics. Now by “identity politics” I am not trying to signal an oncoming conservative diatribe about social progressivism and liberal politicians. The identity politics I have in mind are everywhere–on the right, on the left, down the middle, and even in the margins. American discourse, whether political, religious, or otherwise, is riddled with tribalism and virtue signaling on the one hand, and cynicism and paranoia on the other. The result is that it’s becoming rare to see two opposite sides of an ideological spectrum actually learn something from one another.
The example I have in mind is something of a confession. When I began reading a few years ago complaints from a leftward branch in American evangelicalism about a “toxic masculinity” in our culture, I instinctively dismissed them. I knew that many of these voices abhorred ideas I cherish, such as the complementary roles of men and women in home and church. Several of them were beyond the borders of orthodoxy when it comes to sexuality and the definition of marriage. Many of the writers I saw most concerned with toxic masculinity held doctrinal views that would disqualify them from membership in my church. So, I chalked up their critiques to a wholly dysfunctional worldview, and reminded myself that going wrong on first principles inevitably leads down untrustworthy roads (which is true).
Trouble was, I began seeing inarguable evidence that they were right. Data emerged about men, pornography, and relationships that told a terrifying story. I started reading testimonies daily of women who had been harassed and degraded, very often in the male-dominated corners of the internet. Then came a relentless series of moral failings and shocking behavior from well-known Christian men, some of whom I had counted as exemplars; reading through a sad array of “official statements,”I noticed common themes of harsh, arrogant leadership and resistance to accountability.
Each of these things, in isolation, might be chalked up to nothing more sinister than the same sinful human nature that drove Adam and Eve from the tree of life. You don’t need categories like “toxic masculinity” to understand David’s lust and Uriah’s murder. But the question that kept coming back to me was: What is the church saying about this? Specifically, what was the church saying to men, about men, for the sake of men?
I don’t believe that historic Christian doctrines about marriage or sexuality cause toxic masculinity. I do, however, believe that sin causes it, and the conclusion that I’ve come to is the conclusion that I heard years ago and ignored: The American evangelical church has a blind spot when it comes to the sinful way our culture thinks of manhood.
The point was reinforced for me as I read about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two boys responsible for the Columbine high school shooting in 1999. In a piece for The Washington Post, Michael Rosenwald observes that Harris, the mind behind the massacre, took to the internet in the months leading up to the shooting to vent his out of control, hyper-macho rage. Harris cursed everyone in his life, especially the “cool” kids at school before whom he felt weak and powerless.
“I am [expletive] armed. I feel confident, strong, more Godlike” with guns, Harris wrote.
Rosenwald cites psychologist and author Peter Langman, who observes that several mass shooters have spoken similarly about the effect of violence on their self-confidence.
Take Elliot Rodger, who called himself the “kissless virgin.”
In 2014, Rodger killed six near the University of California-Santa Barbara. Before the shooting, he wrote: “I compared myself to other teenagers and became very angry that they were able to experience all of the things I’ve desired, while I was left out of it. I never had the experience of going to a party with other teenagers, I never had my first kiss, I never held hands with a girl, I never lost my virginity.”
Then he bought a Glock.
“After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed,” he wrote. “Who’s the alpha male now, [expletive]?”
Of course, it’s easy to make mass shooters a cipher into which we pour our presuppositions about culture and human nature. But the conversation about these men and their violent quest to feel a renewed manhood is one that confessional, evangelical Christians need to be having, and one we seem to be avoiding. The fact is that when Eliot Rodger felt like a deficient man because of his singleness or unpopularity, he was thinking and feeling how the secular culture of manhood told him to. What’s at stake here for the Christian church is not just keeping men from killing. It’s countering a narrative and recalibrating moral imaginations to not see self-worth in terms of strength, desirability, or people skills. But before evangelical churches can say that authoritatively to the outside culture, they have to decide to believe it on Sunday morning.
That means that we who proclaim to believe in a calling on men to lead at home and in church have to take that belief seriously enough to make ourselves uncomfortable. Where might we find a toxic masculinity at work in evangelical culture? Could it be in the way we talk about “giftedness,” often a euphemism for particular kinds of intellectual and social talents? When we say that a man is “gifted” are we just meaning that he’s a theology geek and a voracious reader of blogs–thereby implying that what God values in a man is an academic personality?
There’s a need in evangelical culture to rethink what we mean when we talk about biblical manhood. Hear me: I am not saying we need to rethink our fidelity to biblical doctrines about eldership or husbands and wives. What I am saying is that we need to accept the possibility that even in thoroughly orthodox circles, American evangelicalism fails to explicitly combat toxic masculinity. This means seeing single men as gifts of ministry to the church, and not just “works in progress” on the way to matrimony. It means seeing blue-collar builders, factory workers, and security guards as equally capable of dividing the Scriptures as their Macbook-toting millennial brothers. And it means being unafraid to critique violent, misogynistic mindsets in our culture, even if in doing so we find ourselves agreeing with those outside our fellowship.
Manhood is much more than a girlfriend on your arm or a letter on a varsity jacket. But it’s also much more than how many Christian conferences one can attend, and how many bookshelves adorn your walls. Before confessional Christians can speak prophetically to toxic masculinity out there, we must first be honest about it in here.