Date posted: January 19, 2012
There is a line of thought that currently floats around the evangelical world that goes something like this. Within the Church there is an absence of manly men. Young men are dropping out of the church, and dropping out of life. Instead of taking new ground, forthrightly stating their opinions, planting churches and getting the biz done, they find themselves drowning in a sea of passivity and metrosexuality.
Therefore the thinking goes, someone or something must take the blame for this current predicament. The usual suspect named is feminism. Although also often brought in for further questioning is a whole motley crew of suspects ranging from postmodernity, theological liberalism, the absence of male role models, or the death of male initiation ceremonies. But what if the true suspect has never been called in for questioning? What if like all good crime mysteries it is the guy that we least expect? Who is the real culprit?
(Cue dramatic music and shocked expressions please.)
The original culprit behind the softening of males in our culture is evangelicalism.
Ok I am being slightly dramatic. Evangelicalism did not create social passivity or a market for male moisturisers. Yet at one time it did see its mission to soften and pacify masculinity. Evangelicalism came of age on the new frontiers of Western culture during the eighteenth century, a time period in which a new set of challenging social situations confronted the Church. Whole populations were springing up outside of the traditional boundaries of Christendom. The industrial revolution saw millions move from the countryside to the city. New frontiers were opening up in the Americas, the Caribbean and Australasia. Evangelicalism came of age in these emerging and challenging mission fields. The dislocation of cultural change created a dislocation of masculinity.
This dislocation created an epidemic of alcoholism which gripped the Western world. Huge percentages of the male (and female) population were addicted to spirits. From the aristocracy to the working poor, adultery was a way of life. Cohabitation in the new frontiers was commonplace. Staggering numbers of women were caught in the trap of the sex trade. One in five women in London in the eighteenth century was involved in prostitution. The first missionary to Australia the Rev Richard Johnson was confronted with a colony in which historian Robert Hughes estimates that 98% of the female population was involved in some form of prostitution. The levels to which men were caught up in a cycle of addiction and adultery make our current society look tame. Yet one male error overshadowed all other vices, the sin of violence.
The modern world was being birthed, culture was morphing, yet masculinity still operated upon older outdated modes. Modes based on honour, saving face and violence. Evangelical church planters, ministers and missionaries found themselves sharing the gospel in post-Christian societies ruled by a code of machismo. Places and spaces in which the violent alpha male was king.
Whether it was the new urban poor of the UK, the convict settlements of Australia, the Western frontiers of the US and Canada, or the slave plantations of the Caribbean; social life was mediated through male aggression and violence. This violence permeated every strata of society. Between individuals murder, assault and rape were commonplace and domestic violence acceptable. Even amongst the well heeled, disputes were settled through duelling. Gangs were widespread, and mob violence normative.
The ‘terror’ of the French revolution put paid to the rules and restrictions of ‘gentlemenly’ warfare, as the new army of the Republic erased the line between civilian and combatant thus creating the idea of total warfare. Colonisation saw incredible violence unleashed upon indigenous populations. Slavery was widespread. The legal system delivered its own forms of violence. In Britain, female counterfeiters were hung and burnt, Irish rebels charged with high treason were submitted to the almost unthinkable punishment of being hanged drawn and quartered. Violence was endemic to life in the West.
If the evangelicals were to fulfil their mandate to share the good news and make disciples they had to confront violent secular models of masculinity. Historian John Wolffe notes that what was created was a new evangelical concept of manliness. One based on calling, and moral virtue rather than honour and machismo. One shaped by the fruits of the spirit, rather than the code of violence.
The language used to usher in this revolution in masculinity seems quaint to us. There is much use of the term ‘morality’ and ‘manners’, words completely out of vogue today. We all know that William Wilberforce gave his life for the abolition of slavery, but he was as equally passionate about the reformation of manners. What he and countless other evangelical stalwarts of the time understood was that they had to model a new mode of being male. One which was gentle yet forthright, active yet peaceful, dedicated yet humble.
The creation of this new evangelical model of masculinity would in turn create a new social space for women. Evangelical colleges would be amongst the first to offer higher education to women. The family was also transformed, the previous modes of masculinity saw little point in fraternising with females and children. The new evangelical mode of masculinity placed affection over aggression as the dominant mode of relating to ones family. Within a century evangelicals transformed how much of the Western world understood what it was to be male. How did they do this?
The key was pride. Pride is where everything goes wrong. Pride is linked to the idea of honour. For when honour is challenged in the world of the alpha male, violence is the only thing which can satiate. The evangelicals of the eighteen century understood that concepts of pride and honour were key in reshaping what it was to be male, and only one thing could achieve this reshaping, the gospel. Church Historian David Bebbington notes that the idea of conversion was central to evangelicalism. In their communication of the gospel on the new frontiers of the West, the evangelicals, stressed repentance, rebirth and regeneration. In coming to Christ, hardened men were forced to leave their pride at the foot of the Cross. They were invited to follow a Messiah who shunned all of the world’s ideas of honour, who could have struck back with the force of an army of angels, but who chose to die a death that was shameful in the eyes of the world but that brought eternal glory. A Messiah who was a warrior, but a warrior who fought his war in the upside down reality of the kingdom, who declared war not on flesh and blood but on death, corruption, injustice and sin. When a man of the eighteenth century frontiers of Western culture truly followed ‘the Messiah who turned the other cheek’ in open view of his peers, there was little he could do to prevent his machismo being eviscerated in an instant.
In our current crisis of masculinity it is tempting to ignore the past and instead look towards models of being a man which carry the scent of the alpha male. The danger however is that we create a new evangelical concept of maleness, a kind of Christian tough guy, one which attempts to fuse Christlikeness with machismo. Such a re-imagining of masculinity makes the mistake of replacing passivity with pridefulness. This new mode of Christian machismo paves the way for a new climate within evangelicalism marked by abrasiveness, authoritarianism and arrogance, a swelling of the male ego that blocks out others view of the Cross.
To rescue masculinity in the West we must remember that we stand on the shoulders of giants. One such giant was John Newton. A man whose debauched life as a slave trader ensured that he had inhabited the old world of male violence. Yet Newton was thoroughly transformed by his encounter with the truth of the gospel. Newton operated as a template for the new evangelical mode of masculinity. He chose to champion others rather than simply build his own empire. A committed calvinist, he collaborated with and encouraged other believers who thought differently to him, maintaining a warm friendship and working relationship with John Wesley.
Newton was not a prim and proper Georgian dandy, often he was described as uncouth. Newton was passionate and dedicated, his communication of the gospel was uncomprimising. Yet what entranced his contemporaries was that his gospel communication was described as having an almost ‘womanly tenderness’. Newton was pointing the way forward to a new mode of being male, one shaped by the Gospel not the code of honour and violence. Newton would act as a father figure to a whole generation of evangelical leaders who would not just transform culture’s idea of masculinity but culture itself.
So what are we to do with our current crisis of masculinity? What advice should be given to young men who find themselves looking for male role models, who wonder what it is to be a Christian man in today’s culture of passivity and indecision. I think that if you want to be a man, stop trying so hard. Instead look to Newton’s advice, understand that you are a wretch who has been transformed by a grace that is amazing. Allow yourself to daily mediate upon and live out of that reality and one day you will get up to shave and the face in the mirror looking back at you will be the face of a man.