My son came to me carrying the New Testament given to him by a popular men's ministry. Sandwiched inside the pages were pictures and biographies of "great" Christian men. They were all rough-and-tumble men; Olympic champions and professional athletes. He was in art school. "If this is the definition of a godly man," he said, "I don't have a prayer. Where are the artists, the musicians, the authors?"
She was attracted to him because there weren't many interesting young men in her church. He had a good job and seemed to take his faith seriously. She thought they had agreed to get together on Friday night, but when he hadn't contacted her by Thursday she gave him a call. He said, "No, you misunderstood. I would never go out on a Friday night. That's my video game night with my friends. Nothing could ever get in the way of that."
A local private university spends a couple days of its freshman orientation week on gender and sexuality clarification issues. These exercises are meant to help recent high school graduates discover who they really are, without the constraints of what they've been told they are supposed to be.
The US Census Bureau reports that one of every three children in the United States is being raised without a father present. Millions of boys grow up without a dad to pass down what only dads can.
What do all of these stories have in common? They point to an important cultural conversation taking place both outside and inside the church: Is manhood under siege? What does a real man look like? What do we do about the growing cultural dynamic of protracted boyhood? Who will teach our boys to be men? In teaching boys to be men, how do we avoid narrow cultural stereotypes? What does the Bible say about gender distinction? What does it teach about a man being a man? How different are men from women?
These are ongoing debates whose conclusions will shape the lives of thousands of boys who are in the process of becoming men. The "manhood" conversation is something no serious Christian can avoid.
BOOKS ON MANLINESS
The contemporary conversation on manliness is unfolding on a myriad of blogs, websites, and books. Perhaps the most popular and influential work on manhood right now is The Art of Manliness, a website founded by the husband-and-wife team of Brett and Kate McKay. (The McKays have also written a book with the same title, which features similar material as the website.)
The Art of Manliness offers the ultimate one-stop shop for tips on staying in shape, dressing sharply, unleashing your inner handyman, and many other street-level skills that every man supposedly needs. Articles feature step-by-step instructions on how to tie your neck tie with a four-in-hand knot, how to shave like your grandpa, how to give a man-hug, to how to teach your kid to ride a bike, and everything in between.
But reading this work made me sad, and I'll tell you why: I learned many of these things (at least the more practical ones) from my dad. He taught me how to polish my shoes. He taught me to look in a man's eyes when I shook his hand. He taught me the value of hard work. He taught me how to grill a good steak. I wonder if the reason The Art of Manliness is so popular is that fathers just aren't passing these things down to their sons anymore.
In recent years, evangelical publishing houses have released several books touching on issues and challenges of manliness:
- Jonathan Catherman's The Manual to Manhood: How to Cook the Perfect Steak, Change a Tire, Impress a Girl, & 97 Other Skills You Need to Survive (Revell)
- Darrin Patrick's The Dude's Guide to Manhood: Finding True Manliness in a World of Counterfeits (Thomas Nelson)
- Stephen Mansfield's Mansfield's Book of Manly Men: An Utterly Invigorating Guide to Being Your Most Masculine Self (Thomas Nelson)
- Eric Mason's Manhood Restored: How the Gospel Makes Men Whole (B&H)
Patrick captures the essence of manhood with catchy phrases: "Get It Done." "Train, Not Just Try." "Feel Something Without Crying at Everything." "Find the Right Arena." Each of these phrases is the doorway to a discussion of crucial areas of character in the life of any serious man. Patrick says in a hundred different ways that it's what's inside of a man that counts, no matter how much he knows about tying a four-in-hand knot.
Stephen Mansfield, the bestselling author and biographer, sees manhood in strong, active, heroic terms. His book is built on four maxims: Manly men do manly things. Manly men tend their fields. Manly men build manly men. And manly men live to the glory of God.
Mansfield illustrates these maxims with a hero's gallery of men: Winston Churchill, George Patton, Jedediah Smith, and Theodore Roosevelt, to name a few. Mansfield's list of character traits is quite helpful, and his biographical sketches were convicting and motivating. But deep down, I kept thinking, "If these guys are examples of 'real' man, then I'm cooked! I'll never measure up."
Eric Mason is pastor of an urban Philadelphia church in a very tough neighborhood. He is both a firsthand witness to how manhood is broken down and a driven and articulate champion of seeing it rebuilt. On the sidewalks he travels every day, he sees evidence of the destructive power of sin on the lives of boys and young men.
The experience has convinced him that only God's grace is capable of reversing the tide. In many ways, Mason's advice is not unlike Patrick's or Mansfield's. But his book stands out in that it contains a strong "something has been broken in men and only God's grace can restore it" emphasis on every page. Manhood Restored is not so much a work of cultural analysis, but a pastor's heartfelt plea to see men in his care living out their manly callings once more.
A BIBLICAL RESPONSE
I would love to eavesdrop on a conversation between Brett and Kate McKay, Darrin Patrick, Stephen Mansfield, and Eric Mason and listen to them discuss what makes a man a "real man." They're all concerned with the present state of "mandom." But they approach the topic from very different places and with very different priorities. It would be a charged and informative conversation, to say the least.
Well, I'll probably never get them all in the same room, but examining their work—examining it alongside Scripture, the ultimate resource on the meaning and purpose of manhood—has left me with the following conclusions:
1. It's foolish to ignore this issue
The work of every generation of Christians is to examine significant cultural issues through the lens of the worldview of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our job is to bring the sanity that can only be found in Scripture. The manhood conversation really does need an infusion of biblical wisdom.
2. God created men and women to be different
To the Bible believer, this may seem obvious. But our culture no longer assumes that it's true. Amid the raging societal debate about gender and sexual identity, it's not hard to see that many young men lack the strong, formative male influences in their lives that previous generations enjoyed. Gender does matter. Manhood and womanhood matter because the Creator decided that they should matter. By design, the self-image God planted in all human beings has a male and a female expression.