Making Better Men

My contention in previous posts (here, here, here, and here) has been that we make better men by calling on men to be better people, not by building illusory models of masculinity imaginatively drawn from Scripture. Since posting, I’ve been gratified to stumble across others saying similar things, albeit with far greater erudition and eloquence. A recent post on the First Things site is entitled ‘Making Better Men‘, and it is worth a read.

Speaking of the male role models in his life, the author, First Things assistant editor Alexi Sargeant says:

The strength of both these fathers, physical and spiritual, was a humble one, in that they had no need to boast or domineer. They had the character to suffer wrongs patiently and trust in God rather than crave the accolades of men. I am grateful that my image of masculinity was formed by these men of faith and integrity. They modeled love and respect in their marriages and their friendships, building up the people God had placed in their lives with care, devotion, and joy. This unpretentious constancy is what men should strive for. When I ask my friends for their formative, positive male role models, the answers (real and fictional) were often men of quiet confidence and steadfast service, like St. Maximilian Kolbe or Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird.

That a lesser, as he calls it ‘a dingier’, sense of manliness is seemingly embodied in the popularity of Donald Trump is sad to me as I think it does reflect something of the confusion men feel as to what it means to be a genuine, or decent, man. Sargeant notes that

The virtuous man, by contrast, demonstrates both self-control and self-respect.

And he calls us to find, and to be, better role models.

To which I say, “Amen.”

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More on Manliness

It was our date night, and my wife wanted to shop for some shorts. I was willing to set aside my natural aversion to shopping, and shopping for women’s clothes in particular, on a date night no less, in order to accompany her cheerfully and to earn some serious husband points in the process.

After visiting several stores we ended up at a Montgomery Ward department store, which dates this story a bit. As she was holding up a pair of shorts to the light, I said, “Why don’t you just buy this pair?” I suspect my patience was running out. She said something like, “Oh, I wasn’t going to buy anything; I’m just looking.”

I realized then what was meant by those who had said in messages about the differences between men and women that women shop, but men hunt.

That’s been a fun distinction to think about and, to an extent, joke about. When I go to the store, I set a bullseye to this item and a bullseye on that item. I grab them and throw them in the cart and leave. Barb will stop and read the labels and pause and think and consider. We cannot go to the store together. She shops and I hunt.

What I should NOT do, however, is to generalize from my own limited personal experience to say that this is a ‘masculine’ trait, an aspect of what it means to be a man. I should especially not hit the Christian speaker circuit (as if anyone would want me to) drawing that and other distinctions of dubious value which I doubt would stand up under clinical scrutiny. In fact, I suspect that there are other couples where the husband is more likely to shop, and the woman more likely to hunt. Is he therefore less man-like?

The effort to find a so-called ‘biblical’ masculinity is fraught with this danger. We ought never to generalize from our own cultural or personal experience distinctions which we observe as if they apply to all men or women. Nor should we legitimize these distinctions by calling them biblical. Whether I hunt or shop of course is fairly innocuous. But we baptize other instincts as ‘manly’ or ‘masculine’ such as dominance or vengeance or, even so-called ‘locker-room talk’. These may be in fact sinful instincts best overwhelmed by a pursuit of decency.

Film director Scott Derrickson noted recently that things such as racism and misogyny are in our American DNA. It’s worse than that. It’s in our human DNA. That’s not pessimism. That’s good theology, and rings more true than the hunting/shopping distinction. Untaught, unrestrained, unaddressed, and well fed it will grow into a cancer that will consume us. What is needed is a community of ordinary men and women embracing a contrary ethic, an ethic of decency, to lead us not to generalized and perhaps imagined standards of masculinity and femininity, but to be a people reflecting as much as we are able, the standards of the kingdom of God.

Models of Biblical Decency

The BBC drama Foyles War starring the perfectly cast Michael Kitchen as an unflappable British detective during and after WWII is, for me, must watch television. Watch it. Watch every episode. Savor it. And as you do, consider Inspector Foyles’ character. Note his integrity and the hints of compassion and kindness. Note his perseverance and wisdom and attend to his gentle longing to be reconnected with his estranged son. And then, in one of the final episodes, listen carefully as another in his world speaks of Foyle saying, “He is a decent man.”

Christian men aim for more than decency. I get that. We are to be godly and Christ-like. But we could do little worse than to find models of mere decency and learn from them.

To find such models requires searching not because they are rare. Rather, decent men are not bombastic and they do not promote themselves any more than is necessary for their particular calling. Find men who care for their corner of the world and do so faithfully. These will be the decent men. Flawed they will be, for sure, and broken in ways they themselves may not be able to see. But their humility will lead them to face those flaws and seek to work beyond them. Reflect for a while, and you will think of men who bear the attributes that draw us: compassion, mercy, and kindness, with an ear quick to listen and lips that are careful to build up and not tear down. Decent men should be our models.

Popular culture gives us super-heroes whose impulse is to fight and exact vengeance. More people know of John Wick or Jason Bourne than of Christopher Foyle. Others should be known. Many know of Atticus Finch, the courageous and quietly compassionate attorney in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m struck, too, by the decency of Tom Robinson, the harassed and falsely accused black man whom Finch defends, or of Boo Ridley, the reclusive rescuer of children. Decent men, they are, functioning as best they can in a broken world.

In Alan Paton’s wonderful novel Cry, the Beloved Country the Zulu South African Anglican pastor Stephen Kumalo lives with his wife in poor, desolate Ndotsheni. There he cares for his church and all who live in its vicinity. He loves them and they love him. Circumstances lead Stephen to the big city of Johannesburg where tragedy and heartbreak await him. Though he gives in to the impulse to hurt others at times, his repentance is real and deep. Most of the time he sees the right thing to do, and does it though it costs him dearly. His decency is so real that I have a hard time remembering that he in fact never existed. I want him to exist. He is a decent man.

I’m drawn as well, as have been many others, to the fundamental decency of the Reverend John Ames, the congregational pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead, Home, and Lila. The Rev. Mr. Ames, too, is flawed. And yet those who meet him in these novels will remember his tenderness, his kindness, and his integrity. We walk away from time spent with him understanding that he is a decent man whom we wish to know better.

Decent men (and women) are those who, in spite of their imperfections and weaknesses, act in a direction that reveals genuine character and virtue. The men profiled here never existed. And yet they exist quietly all around us and should become our models, models of biblical decency.

The Allure of Biblical Decency

At a political rally a Christian pastor proclaims,

“In a manly time of struggle one cannot get by with effeminate and sweet talk of peace.”

One can imagine his comments receiving a vigorous supportive response. Men, even Christian men, are to be marked by strength and aggression. We are to fight for our rights and never back down. Real men pack heat and and kick ass when called upon.

And I wonder if we’ve read our cultural biases into a Christian script and gotten off track somewhere. Perhaps way off. The Christian pastor spoke these words at a 1937 rally in Frankfort, Germany, in support of Adolph Hitler.

Christianity’s current determination to make sharp distinctions between masculinity and femininity is, while aimed at a good goal, wildly off the mark. Nostalgia leads us to imagine a time when men were men and women were women. We feed off that nostalgia, no matter how inaccurate, and then find in our Bibles verses that seem to anchor those claims in scripture. That’s a bad idea all around.

And yet the motive is a good one. Christian men are wondering how to shape their character and how to be obedient as a man to their Christian discipleship. It is good to give them direction. But the issue is not masculinity but decency. Let’s guide men toward decency.

But isn’t the word ‘decent’ too tepid? Isn’t it too broad? Perhaps. I know there are those who sense some of the same things I do who rightly prefer to speak of ‘godliness.’ I don’t quibble with that. To be godly is to be decent. But the language of decency speaks to a broader public and includes within its boundaries people of virtuous character who make no claim to Christianity. Christian men seeking to be godly men will be decent men, will be good men. That is language I think we can understand and live with.

Such decency will be for us defined by Scripture. It is modeled by Christ. It is outlined in the gospels and the epistles. It includes attributes we ordinarily attribute to masculinity – courage, for example, and integrity – and those we see as more feminine – compassion and gentleness. We should pursue these things not because we want to be men, but because we want to be like Jesus. And in our current context, to aim to be simply decent men will be to run against the tide, politically and culturally. It is an act of rebellion.

When the question is asked, “What kind of people do you associate with the church?” I want the answer to be, “Decent people.” There is a certain appeal to looking at a person, man or woman, and noting their fundamental decency and longing that more of us might evidence such character. My appeal as a pastor speaking to men who want to be men is simply this: let’s be decent men.

I could be drawn to a community, a church, a nation, and a world comprised of decent men. I’m not sure how to seed the world that it might sprout such men, but that would be the world in which I’d like to live.

Note: The quote with which this post begins appears on page 262 in Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a book I hope to review here soon.

The Myth of Biblical Masculinity

Standing in the serpentine line guiding us to our luggage after a cruise, my wife and I passed and re-passed a confident and athletic looking man wearing a t-shirt that broadcast his vision of masculinity. It said, “Cool story, Babe…now make me a sandwich.” He was not one to be pushed around, this one. He knew his place as a man and was going to assert it. Or, at least, he wanted others to THINK he knew.

We are told, though, that many men these days aren’t quite sure what their place is. And so books for ‘dudes‘ are written to guide them (with endorsements by real men like pro athletes). Charismatic pastors speak directly to men, using strong and colorful language, to shape their thinking of manliness. Defining what is called ‘Biblical Masculinity’ has become the rage and I’d like to make a modest plea that we stop trying to define what isn’t there.

My plea may arise from my not being very masculine. Yes, I can grow a beard, so there is that. And I like to hang out in my garage when I can. So far so good. But I don’t hunt. And if I do go fishing (once every decade, at least, just to keep the skills fresh), and if I were to catch anything (not likely), my wife is the one who would clean it. She likes that kind of thing. I do the grocery shopping in our family and have to be reminded how to start the lawn mower should my wife not be able to take care of the lawn some week. So perhaps my dismay over the search for biblical masculinity arises from my own confusion.

That may be so. But I like to think it arises from the fact that the Bible shows a complete lack of concern for such a thing. I don’t see Jesus or Paul or any of the gospel writers or apostles overtly concerned with teaching men how to be men. Yes, we are given some direction as husbands and fathers, but many fine men are neither.

I would plea that we simply get over trying to be men and replace that with a passion to be decent. How about we champion the admittedly rather bland and gender inclusive goal of biblical decency? We could stand for this, couldn’t we?

I don’t think the book on this has yet been written, but certainly it would include a chapter on kindness. And for sure there would be one on the courage to stand for the weak. Another would encourage integrity and fidelity. And it must include one on owning our wrong and making it right. It would cover all the essentials of what makes for a decent, if not ‘manly’, man. Compassion. Patience. And the meekness with which one will inherit the earth.

I’m open to correction here. Maybe ‘biblical masculinity’ is a genuine biblical thing. But even so, should not the pursuit of ‘biblical decency’ be an even more noble cause? To embrace that is my plea.

I’m sure my sons would have loved to have had a more manly dad. They had to have other guys show them how to fish and to take them hunting. I did go backpacking with the older two once, so maybe that counted for something. But as I recall, none of them ever sat me down and urged me to do more ‘manly’ things.

One, though, did sit me down and ask me to be more gentle. I think he wanted a dad who was a more decent man. And that is a good longing.

Go think about it, men, as you make your sandwich. Make one for your wife as well. It would be the decent thing to do.

A Hymn’s Mysterious Ways

It is typical for preachers such as I in an attempt to bring encouragement to people struggling through difficult times to quote from the hymn whose first line is ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way’. We will often along with that tell something of what we know of the hymn’s author, William Cowper.

William cowper 448
We will tell how he was a pastor and a poet, and friends of the famed John Newton, the author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. And finally we will point out how Cowper dealt with severe affliction, that he struggled with mental health issues and that he was hospitalized numerous times, sometimes after attempts on his own life. Given that context we will then encourage people to reflect on lines from the hymn:

You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds you so much dread
are big with mercy and shall break
in blessings on your head.

And from this, we hope people will find comfort.

But did Cowper find comfort from these words himself? That he did not is the possibility that hymn scholar Erik Routley in his book I’ll Praise My Maker suggests.

Routley points out that the bulk of Cowper’s hymns show they were written by a man with a passionate and sensitive heart. His words were often personal, flowing from a heart in love with his savior.

Oh! for a closer walk with GOD,
A calm and heav’nly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!

But Cowper, like many sensitive souls, struggled to understand God’s providence when it took dark and inexplicable turns. And so, Routley points out, the words from his hymn on that matter,

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

are completely true and deeply hopeful. But, coming from the pen of Cowper, they are oddly lacking anything personal or emotional. They lack, that is, Cowper’s heart.

The whole hymn exhorts men to trust in God and not to enquire into His ways, which is well enough so far as it goes….

But what astonishes the careful reader is surely this, that here is a man who had both plumbed the depths of suffering and scaled the heights of faith, who wrote so passionately of his Saviour as he did in “There is a fountain filled with blood”,…yet, when he would advise men upon the inscrutability of God’s Providence, he makes no mention whatever of the Saviour of the world, and does not so much as mention the word “grace”.

How can Cowper, after all his experience and all his exhortation, write a hymn of providence that makes no mention of redemption?…Something is wrong here…. (page 110)

I’m not sure that there is something actually ‘wrong’ here, but something is clearly missing. How can that be explained?

Sometimes we find ourselves in those hard places where we are torn between the pain that hurts so badly and the truth that we are supposed to believe. All that we can really do in the midst of that agony may be to recite what we know to be true even though it seems distant from our hearts. Sometimes all we have strength to do is to sing, or in Cowper’s case write, what we are having trouble believing so that we might come around to the place where in fact we do believe and our hearts can again rejoice.

This is the ‘I believe’ part of the complete confession, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’ (Mark 9:24) We do believe, but contentment eludes when the horror of what we are experiencing and feeling overcomes us.

Perhaps in his own way, Cowper, struggling with the incomprehensible darkness of mental illness, is showing us a path. In the dark we confess the truth that we know until the light comes to illuminate it to our hearts. Perhaps this hymn itself moves in a mysterious way.

Things Given, Things Taken Away

David Brooks in a NY Times column late last year made mention of a man he’s come to know from Nairobi’s famous Kibera slum. Kennedy Odede is a survivor of terrible deprivation who now is joyfully doing notable good works there.

Odebe’s story is one of poverty and loss and abuse and gangs and crime, a list of things that singularly would have overwhelmed and destroyed many. But Odede says this:

While I didn’t have food, couldn’t go to school, or when I was the victim or witness of violence, I tried to appreciate things like the sunrise — something that everyone in the world shares and can find joy in no matter if you are rich or poor. Seeing the sunrise was always healing for me, it was a new day, and it was a beauty to behold.

Sometime after reading that I was running as the sun came up and realized that even how we look at something as commonplace as the rising of the sun (or other ordinary events) is really a product of our faith. If one’s faith excludes God, then one can only look at the sun as the product of the regularity of natural forces. It cannot be seen as a gift, for there is no giver. It is the fortuitous product of those natural forces which in other combinations produce death and disease, mudslides and hurricanes, earthquakes and fires. The sun becomes a symbol of hope only through eyes that are informed by faith.

Christians are just as likely as any to see the sunrise, or other events, no differently than the naturalist or atheist sees them: as, perhaps, solely the product of natural forces or as the fruit of our own hard work, forgetting that all good gifts, whether great or small, come from the hand of God.

We can only be moved to gratitude if we acknowledge a giver. But the thing about a give is that he who gives has the power to take away what he has given. If the food on my table is the product of my hard work, and God only the symbolic source, then my thanks to him is tokenism. If on the other hand I know that the food I cherish is something that he could, if he chose to do so, withhold, only then do I genuinely see it as a gift for which I am grateful.

If what we have is only the necessary outcome of natural events, there is no one to thank, no one to credit, and therefore no one to hope in for anything future. We can only thank someone, only be moved to worship someone, whom we know can also take it away what he freely gives.

My point here is not to answer all the questions that swirl around those times of God’s absence and the pain of loss and suffering. Faith is challenged in many complicated ways and I don’t have answers. My point is rather for us to realize that the more we deprive God of control of our lives and of the natural world, the less hope we will have in him. The ‘smaller’ our God, the less power the rising sun will have to stir our hope for the day that comes.

The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. (Job 1:21)