This book has the potential to revolutionize our vision of what it means to be a man in today’s culture–how to lift up the beauty of God’s design for men (in pulpits, schools and men’s ministries), how to raise a good man, what to look for in a good husband, and how to heal many of the broken relationships in our families and churches. It addresses abuse head on. Read on to see why this could be one of the most family-and-culture transforming books you might ever read.
From my newsfeed recently: “…straight white men are abusive, [they] are serial killers…[they] are the ones shooting up schools, right?” The narrative that masculinity is toxic is pounded into men and boys daily. For such a time as this, Nancy Pearcey’s new book, The Toxic War on Masculinity, flips the script, showing that masculinity is not inherently toxic, but the war on masculinity certainly is.
Yes, Nancy writes, “men are typically larger, stronger, and faster than women. In general, they are also more physical, more competitive, and more risk-taking.” And while it’s true that the American Psychological Association notes that “most mass shooters are male, they overlook the controlled power and aggression used by the heroic men who have stopped mass murderers.” On 9-11 we were proud and grateful to mostly all men who ran into the burning buildings and searched the wreckage for survivors. That is what good men do. They protect and rescue. They show courage and aggression under control. And good moral character.
But Nancy exposes today’s competing script for masculinity: “Men everywhere seem to experience the tension between what they define as the “good man” and the way our culture pressures them to be a “real man”—‘be tough, be strong, never show weakness, win at all costs…get rich, get laid.’”
So how do you expose the falseness of a widely embraced cultural narrative?
Well, if you were in Plato’s cave you would urge the people chained to a wall there, watching shadows on a blank wall and believing that was the real world, to turn around. Look at the fire in the back of the cave. Examine objects passing in front of the fire and see how they are producing the shadows. Invite them up out of the cave to see the real sun and the real world outside the cave.
Just so, Nancy begins the book focusing on the shadows of the “real-man” stereotype of masculinity projected on the blank cave wall of today’s culture, as well as the stereotypes of evangelical men portrayed as clinging to their roles of patriarchy, superiority, and disrespect for women.
Then she takes her readers up into the sunshine and shows them, from reams of shocking sociological research, what the scientific data tell us is actually true about committed evangelical Christian men–how those who take worship and the Bible seriously “are more loving to their wives and more emotionally engaged with their children than any other group in America. They are the least likely to divorce, and they have the lowest levels of domestic abuse and violence.”
She also shows us the sun—God and his creation of male and female, and his ideal design for masculinity. She discusses the Biblical ideal of headship in its context of sacrificial love and husbands taking the initiative to lead their families and invite them to “Follow me”—deal with temptation the way I deal with it, stand for God’s truth the way I do. And if hard things need doing—taking a second job or having hard conversations with children or parents–he steps up to do them.
How the shadows on the wall got there
In Part Two, Nancy begins to show how the script for becoming a “real man” became separated from a moral vision of the “good man.” Her systematic unmasking of the “real man”–exposing the lies behind the myth and continually contrasting them with a Christian worldview of masculinity and the real history of the “good man,” can powerfully break the worldly enchantment of the “real man” script. That is what most of this book is about. And Nancy’s gifts for translating primary sources, sociological research and historical data into an extremely readable narrative really shine.
Nancy shows how Puritans and Pilgrims brought God’s vision of how to be a good man to our shores, instilling it into the very bedrock of our families and nation. These men loved God, loved their families, and shepherded them continually as they worked together on farms or in shops. The whole family bonded together for the common good–to make a living for themselves, provide something of value for others, and help the poor. Men’s strength was directed toward the difficult labor of building, farming, and fighting (enemies, floods, fires, etc.). Yet they were just as involved in the nurture and guidance of their children as their wives.
With the growth of the industrial revolution, men who used to spend their lives in daily involvement with their families left for jobs in the marketplace and large-scale production. Not only did these jobs require their absence from the home, but increasingly they socialized men into “real man” values thought necessary to succeed in the marketplace—ambition, self-centeredness, competitiveness, dominance, even ruthlessness. Christian values of the “good man”—honesty, kindness, piety, thrift, concern for the common good–were increasingly relegated to home, church, and family as men tried to navigate the split between subjective “truths” and values of our private domains and the presumed empirical “facts” and standards of the public domain.
In the absence of men at home, it was left to women to assume the moral instruction of the family, and they were increasingly elevated, put on a pedestal. As men’s worlds began to focus on a life outside the home, and young men left home to find work in the cities, the number of saloons and taverns exploded. By extension, so did gambling and prostitution. By 1830 alcohol consumption had increased to its highest level ever, before or since.
As vice abounded, so did toxic masculinity
Men who increasingly spent their wages on drink rather than their families saw their wives, who taught morality inside the home, rise up and attack immorality outside the home. They launched the temperance movement and fought against saloons, gambling and prostitution in their communities.
“Fatherless boys of the Industrial Revolution” began to grow up with no role models. Increasingly, “to be a ‘real’ boy meant to defy the rules set down by women.” Think Huck Finn. In literature bad boys became the heroes. Good boys became effeminate and boring. Adult literature also trended away from focus on happy home life to novels of escape from civilization to pursue grand adventures—Moby Dick, Kidnapped, westerns.
Along came Darwin, whose false narrative of time + chance = all life forms lent scientific legitimacy to imaginings that men really are animals and barbarians at heart covered by only a thin veneer of civilization. And our story really is the struggle for the “survival of the fittest.” The “real man” script exploded.
Nancy explains how Darwin believed that women are physically, emotionally, and intellectually inferior to men. Yet, being the bearers and nurturers of children, they are more civilized. Contemporary evolutional psychology still insists that “men are, by nature, violent, sexually predatory, and irresponsible.” (Some even argue that rape confers evolutionary advantage on men who can spread more genes into future generations.) Women must tame them. So they impose marriage on men to help them do it. Some Darwinists say women invented marriage for that purpose.
But the Bible insists that God created marriage. That men did not evolve to be predatory and uncivilized but were created for relationship—intimacy with God and their families. And again, research backs up God’s version. The longitudinal Harvard Grant Study tracked one class of graduates to discover what makes men successful and happy. It was not spreading more of their genes around. Of even wealth or fame. Certainly not being violent and predatory.
The secret to happiness, according to Harvard, is good relationships. Sounds familiar. “Love God. Love others. Love your wife as yourself.” Become the kind of man who sacrifices his selfish desires to love well. The very opposite of the call to be an autonomous, self-focused, self-indulgent “real man.”
“From Monster to Model”
Sadly, this “real man” script for masculinity has become so predominant that boys are increasingly raised with little vision or skills to pursue good relationships. Which is why the final two chapters of Nancy’s book are so crucial.
Nancy’s passion for standing for God’s truth in today’s culture was ignited and nurtured by theologian and philosopher Frances Schaeffer. And like Schaeffer, she is committed to reaching the mind with logic and evidence, as well as the heart, through art and stories, including her own.
Nancy opened her book by giving her readers a front-row seat to what it was like to grow up with a Jekyll-and-Hyde father. She loved and admired her publicly fun and hard-working university professor Dad. And shrank in terror from her private, physically abusive Dad. She concludes her book by weaving together in-depth research on abuse with many other stories of abuse from both victims and perpetrators. She again lifts up the Bible’s vision of strong yet loving masculinity and lets the gospel expose the hidden “real man” character qualities that drive abuse–desire for control, self-righteousness, and lack of self-control.
This is such a life-giving vision to recapture. The message that testosterone is the source of men behaving badly (or even that it is intrinsically evil) is a message of hopelessness for men. How can they escape the biology of each cell in their bodies?
But God has given us a different vision and a real history of the goodness of men’s strength under self-control (though not perfectly) and invites men to be champions of loving and caring for others, bringing his kingdom in hard places, as he intended. It is that vision of the “good man’ sacrificing even his job and his time with his own family to save children from human trafficking that, I believe, has made the movie Sound of Freedom such a smash hit. What a contrast with the confused Ken of the Barbie movie who struggles to find his way between the emasculated role of a subordinated sidekick to Barbie and his brief, failed experiment with the patriarchal “real man” role.
Finally, Nancy turns to Christian counselors like David Clarke and Leslie Vernick to know when the abused should resort to Matthew 18 and its call for accountability and consequences to abusers. Enabling abuse is not following God’s tough love for abusers. She shares her story of how a no-nonsense Christian counselor at L’Abri helped her overcome her father wounds and encourages readers to do the same to overcome abandonment, neglect and abuse.
Most importantly, as she painfully worked out for herself, she helps us cultivate a trusting, intimate relationship with our heavenly father to give us the tender affection and guidance we may not have received from our earthly fathers and overcome any legacy of fear and insecurity. Nancy’s book is full of wise, Biblical, and specific suggestions for individuals and churches to help them reclaim masculinity for men, loving husbands for wives and tender, engaged fathers for children.
I highly recommend this book for men (and women!), church staffs, parents, teachers, and anyone who wants to see God’s vision for masculinity thrive in today’s culture.
Postscript: When this book launched a few weeks ago, Nancy’s Twitter feed lit up with Christians who believe that masculine and feminine roles should be equal, even interchangeable. They called her out for not condemning Christians who disagree. Even demanding an apology. Please do not let that criticism keep you from reading this book. Because…
…that is not what this book is about.
…while Egalitarians and Complementarians disagree, the world pretty much ignores them both and keeps pounding in the message of toxic masculinity that is tearing our families and society apart. Too much is at stake not to equip our children and grandchildren with God’s truth about masculinity. And help them reconcile the growing tension between the sexes.
…even some of those critics have apologized to Nancy.