Sunday, December 23, 2018

Christian manhood

I'm going to make some comments on some material by Paul Maxwell. I only ran across him recently. He used to be a contributor to Desiring God and TGC. 

He frequently says things I agree with. However, he seem to be a self-help guru, so there's a self-promotional aspect what he says. That can be a danger if you say things to sell books and do workshops. Finding a market niche. Cashing in on the Jordan Peterson phenomenon. 

Another problem is when a thirty-something starts giving advice on how to get through life. Although that's old enough to have some life-experience under your belt, there are other pitfalls and turning-points in the lifecycle you haven't experienced. When guys who are middled aged or senior citizens listen to young guys proffer sage counsel on the journey ahead, that lacks a certain…cachet. In fairness, the same could be said for young pastors. 

There's also the impression that his philosophy of life is still a work in progress. That what he confidently says today may not be what he confidently said 10 years ago or what he will confidently say 10 years from now. A certain amount of shakedown time is often advisable. Don't give directions until you can see ahead. 

By the same token, exegesis is often primarily an intellectual skill. A younger pastor can preach through Romans or Revelation. But other books of the Bible are more existential, and it's better to wait until you're more emotionally seasoned before you preach through Job, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, Lamentations, or the Psalter. 

I'll begin by commenting on two statements he made in this article:

Maleness is biological masculinity — this is, most basically, a man’s XY chromosome. In the biological aspect, a man’s maximization of his potential for competence manifests itself as the pursuit of the highest attainable strength, speed, shelter, sexual and hunting prowess, and other body-oriented skills that are base and elemental. 

The obvious problem which that definition of masculinity poses is that many man live and work in an urban, hitech society where most of those physical competencies are moot. And that precipitates an identity crisis if masculinity is thus defined, since those competencies are no longer required to succeed. 

Of course, guys can still pump iron, play sports, and go hunting, but that's usually detached from what's now required to survive and thrive. Those are hobbies. Even sexual competency is being co-opted by pornography and sexbots.  

Manliness is cultural masculinity — this is a man’s ability to ascend a social hierarchy and to overcome more abstract obstacles related to social wellbeing and belonging.

If you start out in life at the bottom rung of the ladder, there's some value in ascending a social hierarchy, but what if you were born into the middle class, and if you just maintain that standard of living, it supplies your material needs and creature comforts? Rising to the top isn't a recipe for happiness. And most men don't have the talent or opportunities to rise to the top. 

Moving along to this article:

Evangelicalism is losing its attraction for young men. Yet, young men are also gravitating toward free-thinking conservative movements like The Intellectual Dark Web (IDW). There are several points of crisis that push men to identify with certain movements. Here, I identify eleven points of male crisis which serve as reasons why young evangelical men are more attracted to secular conservatism than evangelicalism.  

1. Authority: There is a crisis of credibility among evangelicals. Most evangelicals are anti-body, anti-fun nerds. Why take life advice from 3 doctorates in theology (John Piper, Tim Keller, and Don Carson) when you can take it from a Navy Seal (Jocko Willink), a pot-smoking jiu jitsu blackbelt (Joe Rogan), a fast-talking Harvard lawyer (Ben Shapiro), a Harvard psychology professor (Jordan Peterson), and an MIT mathematician (Eric Weinstein)? 

i) That's a quite disparate group. Moreover, I don't see a consistent contrast. Certainly there's a stark difference between Piper, Keller, and Carson, on the one hand, and a Navy Seal or pot-smoking martial artist on the other. But I don't see the same contrast between a theology nerd, a math nerd, a nerdy lawyer, or an academic psychologist. 

ii) Moreover, Keller, who's tall and lanky with a deep resonant voice and unpretentious accent, has a manlier demeanor than short, high-pitched, baby-faced Shapiro. 

iii) In addition, it does make more sense to take life advice from men in their 60s and 70s rather than potheads and thirty-somethings. And since when did mathematicians acquire a reputation for practical wisdom?   

iv) My knowledge of Piper's theology is limited. He seems to be more eccentric in his old age. That may be the outworking of his hyper-Christocentrism. 

Most evangelical leaders have the same soft competencies—they are good at church. And those competencies, despite their insistence, often fail to translate meaningfully into other domains of life, such as romance, career success, personal fulfillment, and physical maturation. Evangelicals claim to speak prophetically and authoritatively about masculinity, but its leaders often fail to exemplify it in a recognizable way.

i) It's certainly true that some evangelical leaders are uninspiring models of masculinity. 

ii) Keep in mind that some pastors and evangelical leaders have a military background. 

iii) However, some of Maxwell's checkpoints for masculinity can just be superficial, flashy accessories. You can hunt, pump iron, and master one or more martial arts, but for hitech urbanites, that's far removed from practical skills. For instance, compare Maxwell's checkpoints for masculinity and competencies with the list by ex-Marine Joe Carter:

Some of the commenters on Carter's post also had good suggestions to extent the list. 

It’s interesting that Mark Driscoll became popular because he was so good at exemplifying masculinity in a way that resonated with young men, and was at the same time demonized by evangelicalism for those same traits which made him so attractive to begin with.

But I think that illustrates a problem, when masculinity is reducible to style. Projecting a tough-guy image. Don't confuse posturing with manliness. 

2. Agility: Evangelical leaders proved themselves at preaching, but not at debating. It’s common for evangelical preachers to talk about “bringing the heat” to the pulpit. But preaching is actually very easy. You have to be very lazy about sermon preparation to be bad at preaching, because preaching is essentially a 45-minute contract with a room that one person will talk uninterrupted. But the IDW leaders publicly test themselves in the fire of live YouTube debate. 

The common mode of discourse isn’t monologue, but back-and-forth. When was the last time men have seen Piper or Keller face a public challenge and win? This is why men typically respect apologists more than evangelists. They step into the ring with an opponent and risk public defeat. This publicly exemplifies masculinity, and garners greater respect.

Yes, that has gladiatorial appeal, and I appreciate guys like Craig and Shapiro who go into the lion's den. That, however, requires a different skill set. Preaching is a public aspect of pastoral ministry, but there's a lot that goes on behind-the-scenes. Visitation ministry. Crisis counseling. Marriages and funerals. 

Good men can be inarticulate while articulate men can be bad men. That's not a test of masculine virtue. 

3. Community: Crisis of relational credibility. When I hear Matt Chandler yelling at thousands of young men, including myself, about masculinity (calling them “boys who can shave”), I don’t take him seriously, because he doesn’t know me. I don’t know him. He doesn’t make arguments; he makes emotional appeals. More than that, he construes men in the process of growth as failing men rather than growing men (typical of a fixed-mindset approach, which Carol Dweck says is indicative of a mindset that will not learn). I really don’t think Chandler cares about me, so I really don’t care about his moral judgments. More than that, I don’t know if he has any authority, other than his large audience, for saying these things.

I agree with Maxwell about Chandler. 

4. Male competency: The problem with machismo isn’t that it’s hyper-masculine, but that it’s a meme of a limited collection valuable competencies. Just because you can make fun of something, that doesn’t mean you’ve made a compelling critique. It’s easy to make fun of a knuckle-dragging, anti-intellectual macho man. But it’s easy to forget, in mocking the machismo meme, that physical strength, romantic prowess, and fighting skills are not bad competencies to have. In fact, they are intuitively manly. A man who may not exhibit machismo qualities, but is smart and wise, is not seen as a weakling but as an alpha male, in some sense — e.g. “Ben Shapiro owns…” Evangelicalism in the southern United States tends to prize these machismo qualities, but evangelicalism in the northern United States tends to minimize their importance. In higher circles of evangelical leadership, you will find more often men who look as if they disdain their bodies than those who regularly practice discipline. 

But take MMA. It's often cultivated for its own sake, rather than to help others. It's not like a combat mission, or search and rescue. Shouldn't masculine virtues be useful? 

And why does Maxwell even care what other men look like? 

5. Psychology: Hyper-masculine men are usually compensating for a deficiency in maturity or intelligence. That’s why it’s easy for leftists or effeminate men to roll their eyes at conservative, pro-masculine men—because they’re often inarticulate and woo-woo about lifting weights and eating meat, yet exhibiting very low emotional and social intelligence. To be better men, those guys need to aim for different, higher-level competencies like intellectual, rhetorical, and emotional skills. Evangelicals who fail to develop these higher-level competencies are usually the same guys who get really stirred up by a “Matt Chandler calls out men” video, but aren’t able to conceive of masculinity as a more complex, sophisticated project than merely mastering one or two basic male skills.

i) Okay, but if you're constantly self-conscious about your manliness, that's unnatural. That's playacting. Instead of just being manly, it's about projecting an image. Maxwell is too fixated on impressing other men or finding and following impressive men.  

ii) And this also reflects a limitation with role-models. That's important when you're a kid, but it's something you're supposed to internalize. Beyond a certain age, you shouldn't be viewing the pastor (or some evangelical leader) as your role model for masculinity, and grading him accordingly if he lets you down. 

6. Diversity: To be considered masculine, you have to diversify your masculine qualities. No single masculine quality credentials you publicly as a “man.” Deadlifting 600 pounds doesn’t nullify your other incompetence. True masculinity exhibits a multiplicity of diverse competencies, such as intellectual prowess, moral integrity, and physical strength.

i) There's a certain elitism here, as if every guy is supposed to be superman. 

ii) Moreover, that's more suited to bachelors, who have lots of leisure time. Once you become a husband and father, spare time goes into your family. 

7. Hypocrisy: Most evangelicals who hammer on masculinity are effeminate. It’s all pleated khakis and Dad bods. If I’m going to listen to any authority about masculinity, I’m going listen to Jocko over John Piper. I’m going listen to Joe Rogan over Tim Keller. It’s not that Piper and Keller can’t teach us anything. It’s that when you’re talking about winning the hearts of young men—and in particular, leading by example—you need someone who walks the walk.

i) But that's ironically immature. To keep searching for a father-figure when you're in your twenties or beyond. I don't say that as a putdown. Many men didn't get what they needed when they were young, and that's not something they can completely outgrow. But it's unfair to measure a pastor by the father you always wanted but never had. They don't owe you that. 

ii) Moreover, it's foolish to lionize a guy just because he's hip and cool. Let's not devalue men who are faithful in the little things. To be a conscientious husband and father is admirable. Consider the grown son who's the caregiver for an elderly parent. Or a volunteer coach who mentors the next generation. Or adopting orphans. Or driving a shut-in to medical appointments and the supermarket. That's not flashy. Doesn't make you a celebrity. 

8. Secrecy: Evangelical culture rewards secrecy more than it rewards honesty. This incentivizes the concealment of sin. Of course, it’s not good to normalize sin so that men lose all moral boundaries. But the fact that men sin should be acknowledged and addressed actively, liturgically, and communally with other men to demonstrate the necessity and usefulness of public confession. The problem is that in most evangelical church contexts, the confession of sin results in discipline, stigma, exile, and the loss of romantic opportunities in that community. Because of this, men will far more often conceal, hide, and continue active indulgence. If evangelicalism will ever attract young men, it must have a culture in which it is safe to confess sin without getting exiled, beat up, booted out, chastised.

True, but the flip side is a gossip culture where men and women don't know the boundaries between public and private, friends and strangers. Where they spill their guts to the whole world, rather than having a small circle of trustworthy confidants. 

9. Sociology: We lack a male initiation ceremony in our culture. There’s no challenge, painful rite, or public charge. That’s why the last people who should be complaining about the extension of male adolescence are baby boomers, since they’re the ones who failed to initiate and teach us.[1] 

Do we need a painful rite of passage? What does that even mean? A formal rite of passage is arbitrary since maturation is gradual. There's no magic day or age when you become an adult–even physically much less psychologically. 

10. Belonging: Men want a tribe to which they can belong. If Jesus says “There is no greater love than this: man who lays down his life for his friend,” then it’s natural for men to feel empty who don’t have anything or anyone valuable enough for whom to sacrifice their pleasures daily for the sake of building something bigger. Men need a tribe. A “people.” Guys who accept and challenge them simultaneously. Evangelicalism is attractive to young men in this regard because of its militancy, but it is unattractive insofar as it threatens excommunication for those who fail to assimilate to the cultural norm. Not every man fits within evangelical culture—especially because it tends to be such an effeminate culture.[2]

There's a lot of truth to that. There is, though, quite a difference between a situation where you're actually called upon to lay down your life and the mystique of doing so, even though you will never be in that position. Kung fu and pumping iron are sorry substitutes if that's the ideal. The walk of faith is not about peaks and vistas but constancy and perseverance in valleys and deserts of life. 

11. Identity: Maleness is seen as a bad thing in 2018. Especially white maleness. Since, because of intersectionality, we are inclined to identify people in terms of group membership instead of individual merit, many males are either embarrassed of being men, or they fall into the trap of hyper-masculinity. The demonization of masculinity produces male feminists and alt-right machismo simultaneously.

That's certainly true. 

We can extrapolate four themes from these points of crisis. These themes represent worthy ideals toward which men ought to strive for the sake of grounding their identity without getting lost in the leftist and conservative memes of masculinity.

First, men should pursue balance. Men are generally inclined toward extremism. The goal of masculinity isn’t to erase what makes you distinctly a man, or to lose your identity in those distinctives, but to recognize how you work and what practices will make you in particular the happiest, healthiest man that you can be. You should strive to become as manly as possible in the context of becoming the best person that you can be. 

Is the goal to be the healthiest man you can be? Once again, that's more relevant to a bachelor lifestyle. Time at the gym is time diverted from other things. So it's a question of priorities. 

Second, men should pursue fatherhood—both in the context of being sons, and in the context of raising sons. This doesn’t mean biological procreation, but rather mentorship. Find a sensei as soon as you can, and find a younger man who needs mentoring as soon as you can. Pass down the lessons you learn as you learn them, and learn how to take responsibility for the growth of other men. We need leaders who are able to be better than without being a threat to younger generations. This also means that masculine leaders must bear their vulnerabilities to younger and older men in order to be an example of repentance and growth, as well as to receive instruction and wisdom for the same. 

i) Mentoring is best left to men with more life-experience to share.

ii) No, you don't need to find a sensei as soon as you can. There's too much hero-worship in Maxwell's outlook. As far as role-models go, there's much we can learn from examples in Scripture.  

We want to know men who inspire us who are willing to invest in us personally, and we likewise ought to strive to become those men who lead in that way. Many so-called fathers within evangelicalism lord their higher position in the social hierarchy over younger men, rather than teaching them the skills required to be fathers for the next generation. It’s much easier to lord over than to educate. As a result, instead of father-son relationships in the church, you have relationships more akin to seniors and freshmen in a fraternity—younger guys have to “put in their time” before they’re welcomed into the inner circle. And, of course, in some churches, it’s exactly the reverse.

I disagree with the notion that the pastor-parishioner dynamic should be a father-son dynamic. A pastor isn't supposed to be the official grownup, while adult laymen are emotional minors.

Because some men missed out, they have a craving for the male-bonding they didn't get from fathers and brothers. But you can't recast a pastor in the role, just because you wish he'd play that part. There are unrepeatable, irreversible phases in the life-cycle. Some relationships are irreplaceable.  

Third, men should pursue meaningfulness. That is, they should pursue a purpose to drive, compel, and inspire men to challenge their bodies, minds, and spirits to expend their full strength on making the most of every single day.

Really? What about downtime? Taking it easy? We don't have to compete with ourselves all the time. We don't have to prove ourselves to ourselves all the time. Every day is not a performance evaluation. 

Fourth, men ought to pursue God. This doesn’t mean that they ought to submit to the local church. More often than not, especially in our cultural moment, men need something much deeper and better than what the evangelical church regularly offers. Beneath all the noise of culture, politics, and psychology, God calls men to be virtuous, faithful, wise, and strong. Men need an ideal to strive toward that helps them to face their own death, and that helps them to love their families and to love virtue enough to give their lives for it. Ultimately, a man who lives his life without God will die of existential numbness or existential despair. Again, this doesn’t mean that he must join a church. It simply means that he must seek to engage God authentically, objectively, and as a personal encounter outside of his control and desires, which holds him accountable and which helps him.

But he's not very clear on the alternative. Prayer? Personal Bible study? Fellowship with Christian men outside of church? 

Men want to be led by men who not only lead them into totem, but into taboo. Men want other men to teach them how to dive into the chaos of life and create order. As Jordan Peterson says: “It’s better to be a restrained monster than a well-behaved coward.” In this regard, man faces the paradox of cultivating his inner strength for the sake of being strong so that he can take responsibility, but in the process awakens and strengthens his inner monster. All masculinity, in this regard, can be reduced to Uncle Ben’s Charge: “With great power comes great responsibility.” 

But that's inspirational nonsense. A psychobabble pep talk.  

The more competent a man becomes, the more power he has, and the more of a tyrant he can become. It’s tempting to demonize the masculine pursuit of power because it so often turns men into tyrants. But this is why it is so important that, in becoming disillusioned with evangelicalism, as all men who want to become better men inevitably will, men continue to wrestle with and relate to God on their own terms. Men who remain evangelical will be tempted to give up the pursuit of strength for the sake of a smaller domain of responsibility. Likewise, men who pursue strength will be tempted to abdicate their responsibility. This is why men must pursue God, not as members of an institution, but as individuals who affiliate with institutions only insofar as it aids their fulfilling the words of Peterson and Uncle Ben:  

“It’s better to be a restrained monster than a well-behaved coward.”

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Those are applause lines rather than a sober Christian philosophy of life. A basic Christian ethic is that the strong have a duty to help the weak. It's not about being the first guy to cross the finish line, but going back to help a struggling runner. You slow down to help him across. You cross the finish line together. (Which doesn't mean doing for others what they refuse to do for themselves.) 

Many good Christian men, don't cut the dashing Errolesque figure that Maxwell idolizes. They're average guys who go about quietly doing good. It's okay to be average. 


  1. Quick comment:
    ~ Maxwell's work in the Trinity is well worth a look. That aside:

    > "Why take life advice from 3 doctorates in theology (John Piper, Tim Keller, and Don Carson) when you can take it from a Navy Seal (Jocko Willink), a pot-smoking jiu jitsu blackbelt (Joe Rogan), ..."

    ~ These people have become in/famous in part because Social Media especially, Youtube keeps shoving errr... - putting them in your face with its "Recommended for you" feature.

    I likely would not know who Shapiro was if it were not for Youtube recommending him again and again. But the moment you follow through and click and watch Shapiro, then you get "Louder with Crowder" and that Lindsey woman and the angry pro-Trump UC Berk student and so on and on. Piper and others fade into the background.

    I am trying to avoid watching all these folks and get my account back to sanity.

    1. I'm no YouTube guru, but to my knowledge:

      1. Unfortunately, you can't disable recommendations because they're now a built-in feature.

      2. You can disable history, but YouTube will use general recommendations.

      3. If you enable history, you can regularly delete whatever you want in your history in order to keep the recommendations you want but not the ones you don't want.

      4. You can use third party extensions to block recommendations.

      5. Perhaps the simplest thing to do is just click on the 3 vertical dots of any video and hit remove, then tell YouTube you're not interested.

  2. > "a pot-smoking jiu jitsu blackbelt"

    What's pot-smoking got to do with manliness? On the contrary, I'd associated it with effeminacy. Inability to face the real world without mind-altering narcotics. Desire to "tune out" instead of face up.

  3. It seems to me that he wants to capitalize on the Jordan Peterson audience, but with Christian (rather than Jungian) underpinnings. He also seems to be doing the kinds of things (posting daily, promoting on Twitter, etc.) that you can do to monetize an internet/YouTube type of one-person business. In one of his videos, he laments having gotten a PhD but one that came without the ability to gain an academic teaching position.