A Man's a Man for All That

The sun, it seems, is setting on the age of men. Angry voices rage against the dying light of a culture made by men for men. The high T, Y chromosome has spawned too much war, too many rapes, and too frequent a male suicide to go unchecked any longer. It is high time, we are told, for mankind (especially the male side of that equation) to get back in touch with its feminine side. What America really needs today, the talking heads seem to be saying, is less Thor and more Gaia (Mother Earth). The girl gods are much more eco-friendly.

This is the message I heard when I watched the now infamous Gillette commercial in tandem with the American Psychological Association’s (APA) recent pronouncement regarding the pathological nature of traditional masculinity.

Before I delve into this mess, let me begin by acknowledging two important points. From the perspective of Scripture, no real man should have any interest in keeping or putting women down, for no man is EVER bettered by a weak woman. Greatness in the one sex breeds greatness in the other. Resist this logic, and we not only fall foul of the rhythm of the universe, but we also succeed only in robbing ourselves. Second, one rape (not to mention one suicide of either gender) is one far too many. If a culture produces rape and suicide, as necessary and natural byproducts, then it is by any standard, toxic to all that is good, beautiful, and true. Like the flesh in Paul’s writings, while such a culture may be destroyed and replaced, it cannot be redeemed. It deserves absolutely no quarter.

With these caveats aside, let’s consider the questions everybody seems to be asking today: If American Male culture has gone toxic, how did this toxicity arise, and what can be done to stop it? And does such toxicity represent the climax of patriarchy or its collapse?

Enter the Gillette Commercial. Surely, by now, you have seen its smorgasbord of imagery— wild boys going on rampage; bullies beating up on nerdy kids; wife-beater clad teenagers leering, google-eyed at babes in bikini’s; the patronizing corporate executive “helping” the rest of the boardroom figure out what his female colleague is “really trying to say.” His face says it all: “The poor girl, she’s really out of her depth.” In the back ground, a man’s voice, the kind of man’s man who buys Gillette razors, asks, “Is this the best a man can get?” “Are we going to keep on making the same old excuses? Cue the image of a long line of men standing passively (or is it helplessly?) behind their grills, smiling and saying, “Boys will be boys!” The commercial then rises, phoenix like from the fires of a toxic manhood, and challenges all men everywhere: “There can be no going back!” “Men need to hold one another accountable.” With this message, the script changes to a series of image-bites in which men of all ages and races stand up to the bully, and rebuke the lecherous luster, all in an effort to inspire us to be and do better. What this better means, we are not precisely told. But better is the need of the hour, “because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.”

If you watch this video out of the context of our current cultural milieu, the message is fine. Sure, the bromides are a little hackneyed, and the images are certainly clichéd, but who could argue with its fundamental message:Toxic masculinity is bad; no man should stand for it.

The problem, however, is that the commercial stands at the headstream of a cultural conversation that is profoundly hostile not only to men, but also the character traits traditionally associated with masculinity. Take for example, the new set of guidelines published in August, last year by the American Psychological Association (APA). They have also been in the news this week. These guidelines offer to explain the recent and alarming uptick of male suicides by giving a new perspective on what it means to be a man: “The main thrust,” they say, “of over 40 years of research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful (not only to women—feminists have long labored this point—but also to men).” “Men socialized in this way,” the APA warns (with serious face), “are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors.” In other words, men need to man-down before they kill themselves. Watching the Gillette commercial again after reading these recommendations, I can’t help but wonder whether “traditional masculinity” is in fact the real target in the crosshairs when the narrator asks, “Are we going to keep on making the same old (traditional) excuses?”

Now the problem with this kind of research is that it contrives the disease before it prescribes the treatment. I see this mistake often among those of a progressive bent. Think of the scientists who assume Nature is the whole show, and then proudly conclude “There is no God!” You might also recall the eminent British anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith who once admitted, “Evolution is unproved and unprovable. We believe it only because the alternative is special creation, which is unthinkable.” Why is it unthinkable, and by what standard of thought? Statements like these remind me of the Christian apologist Phillip Johnson, who rather dryly described such scientific “proof” of evolution: “‘Instead of a fact we have a speculative hypothesis that says that living species evolved from ancestors which cannot be identified, by some much-disputed mechanism which cannot be demonstrated, and in such a manner that few traces of the process were left in the record — even though that record has been interpreted by persons strongly committed to proving evolution.”

To my mind at least, this is precisely the kind of choose-your-own-facts “science” that the APA, with their new recommendations, are trying to wash into the brains of American men. Notice the nouns they select to describe traditional masculinity: stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression. Like food presented on a dirty plate, they don’t look very appetizing, do they? This is deliberate. The APA intends you to read that list and think, “Well I certainly don’t want my Johnny, or my Timmy to turn out like that!” For stoic, they really mean you to read: insensitive dolt. Similarly, with “competitive,” they conjure up the kind of buffoon who always has to have the last word and his own way. “Dominance” leaves the aroma of that annoying sort of a man, you know the kind: that chronic rank pulling, leg-lifter who always has to let you know who’s boss. “Aggression,” well that’s the final nail in the coffin. Men, send your traditional man cards to the shredder at once. You had better start selling crafts on Etsy! Aggression? Imagine a moral menace, a sweaty monster, measuring on the kindness scale somewhere between a rabid Pit-Bull and a Great White Shark. Most definitely not the kind of man you want your daughter to marry!

But are those “Manly” nouns all bad? To be sure any virtue can become a vice in the hands of our benighted, Adamic nature. But can’t these very same words glow with a wondrous, yes, even a manly glory? Stoic: Undeterred by setbacks, I will hold the line whatever the cost. Competitive: Refusing to tolerate mediocrity, I will strive to be the best that I can be by God’s grace and for His glory. Dominance: Taking the lead in the face of passivity, I will not stand idly by while others fulfill my responsibility. Aggression: Paying any price, I will not allow evil to pass me by unchecked and unchallenged.

What kind of masculinity do the APA want to encourage? One marked by the opposite extremes of the “vices” they select: emotional instability, apathy, passivity, gender-fluidity, timidity?

After our study this morning with the men in 1Samuel 17, I am left wondering: How would the lion-killing, bear-slaughtering, Goliath-slaying David fit into this brave new world? They’d probably send him off for “Gender Equality Training” — yes, such a thing really exists! Afterwards, I see the lad, crestfallen at the remembrance of the years he spent herding (read: abusively coercing and oppressing) sheep, resolve never to attend Passover again. EVER. I see the APA intelligentsia smile approvingly as this now “well-adjusted” lad, fresh from his yoga practice, with harp in one hand, and dairy and gluten free, kale smoothie in the other, walks up to big, brawny, toxic-man, Goliath (who is bent over trying desperately to hear what this little guy is trying to say), only to hear David squeak, “I said, we forgive you!”

Okay, this thought for the day has gone on quite long enough. Let me tie it all together with three observations:

First, our culture is awash with voices demanding equality. It’s not surprising really. Like loose apples bouncing about in the back of a farmer’s wagon, all our lives are bruised by the perception of injustice, and often the reality. Our life is not what it could have been. Someone must be to blame, and the mirror is much too painful (and probably also too fruitful) a place to look in search of the culprit. So out we go, thirsty to even the score. “Even the score” sounds like equality, but for human beings, all beset by pride, equality generally proves an elusive and ultimately unsatisfying goal. Marx taught the underdog to be more ambitious than that. The Revolution won’t end until the proletariat reach beyond equality for extermination. After years of oppression, what we really want is payback. I sense this when I listen to the rage emanating from some corners of the LGBTQ&Q movement. I hear echoes of the French Revolution, and the mob’s boast, “We have strangled the last king with the guts of the last priest.” From the sounds of it, the mob wants more than just the liberty to come out of the closet for themselves, I fear they want to drive the Christians back into the closet, where, they believe, we truly belong.

Second, we fool ourselves if we think that the best way to strengthen one gender is by weakening or demeaning the other. The imago dei radiates with equal glory through the gender binary of male and female. Redeemed in Christ, this dignity is further enhanced, and we must honor those who are fellow heirs of the grace of life, whatever their gender (1Peter 3:7)—and not by underestimating their worth, you understand, but by fully estimating it. This presents an enormous problem for secular America. For she has no standard by which to measure the worth of a human being. Without God to lend us His image, what does it mean to be fully human? We are, as one writer put it, just a soup of chemicals wrapped up in a sack of skin. Determined by our genes, and directed by the fizzing of our chemicals, are we merely the plaything of impersonal forces? Which, from their perspective, makes the decision of some in our culture to rise up and deny what is perhaps the last great certainty of all, our genetic gender, a rather interesting choice, don’t you think?

Third, the Beatles certainly had a point: “All we really need is love.” Behind this universe love stands as the ultimate reality of all. For God is love: a limitless, endless, constancy of others-centered, self-giving kindness, an inclination to give Himself away, to sacrifice Himself for others, to empty Himself by adding the form of a bondservant. In a universe ruled by love, therefore, conflict is an anomaly, against the nature of things. When love rules our relationships, there only really is one rule, “If I win, we lose.” As men and women, we might want to remember that, the next time we vie for superiority.

Christ Covenant Church