The fifth post in the series. I’ll link my post
- Aaron Renn on The Manosphere and the Church. My post.
- Alastair Robert on The Virtues of Dominion. My post.
- Peter Leithart on Side effects. My post.
- Bill Smith on Attraction: The Biblical Theology of Pickup Artistry. My post.
- Paul Maxwell on The Measure of a man
Let’s get into it.
If you will recall, Paul Maxwell several years ago was the writer of “Real men love strong women” on Desiring God where he grossly misinterpreted several passages of Scripture to agree with feminism. My post in response to that.
He’s actually come up a few other times (he seems to have found out about the manosphere somehow) and has progressively become more oriented to the true nature of attraction, but he still has some ways to go. According to his bio, he’s no seminary student anymore either but an “independent researcher” and likely entrepreneur or something along those lines.
But what is a man, really? A collection of necessary properties? Operations? Can a man be uniquely evaluated meaningfully in any way? Can he fail? Can he do what he wishes? What liberties does he have—from whom, and to what? What rights is he able to exercise, and how are those rights sourced, defended, properly and improperly exercised, and most importantly, how are they bounded? Who draws the lines? How are they drawn? Where are they drawn? Why are they drawn there? Why does his maleness shade these questions with gendered idiosyncrasies?
What happens if a man crosses a boundary? What happens if he crosses it twice? What degree of punitive severity should he expect in proportion to the intensity of his transgressions? What opportunities are available to a man qua man? To what degree are those criteria fixed or flexible? Who sets them, and how, and do they take macro- and micro-social factors into account? Can we know the verdict? Can we appeal the criteria? How ought they to be understood and applied directly?
What are theologically (and socially) acceptable methods available to a man to cope with sub-optimal life circumstances? What should a man do when he wakes up full of suicidal anguish and can’t help but start drinking every day at 2pm? What should a man do when his wife leaves him for another man and sues to take his children? How should he respond when she documents all of his private failings before a judge as a means to remove his children from his custody? What is a contrite single father supposed to do after he strangles his son with an electrical cord in a drunken rage, and doesn’t remember the next day? What happens when he does it again the next weekend? What is the son supposed to do? What is the son supposed to do 20 years later when all of the Christian men in his life are telling him that he is too angry?
All good questions that Maxwell says he wants to answer. We’ll see what answers he has.
Whether William James had a soul or not, he understood how people worked. That is why James’s students (such as G. Stanley Hall, who went on to influence John Dewey) founded the American Psychological Association, which reconstructed the failing enterprise of early 20th century German Psychology. The new Westernized, pragmatic, “medicalized” approach to the self produced a sanitary treatment infrastructure in which new versions of licensure were created to service human issues classified within the “personal problems jurisdiction,” which came to replace those basic services often provided by Christian pastors for centuries.
This new space exists, and pastors should feel a legitimate sense of competitive anxiety with the new cohort of secular shepherds. That this movement was founded by the founder of pragmatism is no coincidence. More often than not, the advice of these secular shepherds works. Men see results in the gym. Men learn David Burns’ cognitive distortions to achieve emotional regulation. They get what they want. A man might even get a woman to like him—perhaps even to fall in love with him. A man has fun manipulating the mechanics of the universe available to him in order to pursue different values across time. In Erik Erikson’s model, between the ages of 17 and 41, men traverse from cultivating fidelity to love to caregiving. Men have fun playing with things, and the laws of nature is the most enjoyable, tinkerable pack of toys a man could have, whichever values are in one’s crosshairs.
But as with all fun and games, there are rules. And if you break the rules, you will be expelled, disqualified or, when the game is real life, cause serious physical or emotional injury to another living being. The National Institute of Health reports: “In 2018, the suicide rate among males was 3.7 times higher (22.8 per 100,000) than among females (6.2 per 100,000).” We might say this is all James’s fault — this is all happening within his wet dream, after all. But there are too many variables to consider. Perhaps James saved millions from suicide. We don’t know what our culture would look like if conservatives took the intellectual lead in the 20th century and produced significant bodies of practical knowledge related to the psychology of the Christian life in the context of male stress — rather than, say, the justifiably waning biblical counseling movement.
But the question this data really puts before us are: Why men? What rules are they breaking? Why such dire consequences? Why such extremely broad spectrums of violence and emotional disruption?
This seems like a long tangent to the issue.
I generally agree that the Church has been too “anti-science” in the past century or so. It was actually the Church pushing science and arts through the dark ages all the way up to the 1800-1900s, but since then it’s become a lot more secularlized. Once the Church abdicated that sphere it’s been used against it.
It comes down to one thing: We want to be credibly seen and loved by other men. But what is credibility? In the 21st century, it is indisputable competence. For Joe Rogan, it’s that he’s a Jiu Jitsu blackbelt, successful standup comic, a free thinker, in incredible physical shape for 53, and he’s a millionaire. … What’s John Piper? What’s Matt Chandler? What have they said or done in the past 10 years that has made an impact on anything that men face every day?
Let’s return to what men want. Men desire to be credibly seen and loved. Everything comes down to this. Purpose. Vision. Work. Acceptance. Sex. Faith. Grief. Alcohol. Pills—opioid, red, blue, white, black. It’s all a way to cope with an unseeing love, an unloving presence, both, or neither.
Here Maxwell makes a big mistake that is commonly seen in the ‘sphere.
Men don’t want to be loved. Men want to be respected. The Bible clearly spells this out between husbands and wives, but it is also true between men and other men as well. The main love that men need is only God’s love, but men primarily are love givers and respect receivers.
This mistake is easy to make if you are operating from a feminized (Christian or not) point of view. Women want to be loved. This particular mistake is typically seen in the decline of quality of relationships from father to son which is showing them how to grow into a man who can be respected and typically the other encompasses a mother’s love for her son.
This basic mistake doesn’t give me hope for the rest of the article.
Can preaching Christ crucified on Sunday morning do something as effective as William James? In my view, the church is called to outdo James. The pragmatism of the left is good at hitting targets, but it’s not good at knowing what targets to hit. The church is good at aiming, but bad at shooting.
What men need from the church is a cooperative, credible, and holistic endeavor on behalf, not of “the church,” but of local churches, to identify men inside and outside of the church, conduct a triage, and begin helping each man one at a time to get on his feet, acquire the appropriate meta-skills for the task before him (and in light of the path behind him, for good or ill) and supply him with resources that he can leverage to advance the causes in his own life.
OK, sure, that’s part of it. The main thrust of what’s been missing is equipping and discipling men for the gospel mission: evangelism and discipleship.
A lot of the issues of wallowing in mediocrity or despair are immediately addressed by the gospel itself and the hope that comes from it. But it just doesn’t stop there obviously.
This is why pastors often fail to reach men. Reaching men requires more negotiation. And men can be very difficult to negotiate with. Pastors, in one sense, are bracketed from the stresses of the market, and over time can become soft and easily unsympathetic to cutthroat posture many men need to cultivate in order to thrive in the workplace. Men don’t want to have this posture all the time. But they need another man who can go toe-to-toe with him, not to fight him, but as a gesture, communicating that trust and respect are worth earning, and that the pastor is willing to earn it. Then he can have a secure place in his life.
The pastor will only be able to parlay for the membership of a secure man when he is able to explain in the man’s own terms what he’ll get out of it. I know plenty of men over the past year who have not left the church or the faith, but have simply walked away from evangelicalism — not over theology or ideology, but over the weirdness of the culture and the suspicious incompetence of its credentialed professionals. The manosphere sometimes calls these men MGTOWs (men who go their own way), but most men would just call it being one’s own man.
Pastors desire submission as a down payment for care. And men don’t want to submit. Most men already suffer under a crippling deluge of daily anxiety. Anxiety is about control. And the request for the submission of church membership is a request from men to give up what little control they have left in their lives. Pastors underestimate the scale of this ask, which is why they often fail to close the sale — they forget what it’s like to be a gunslinger in the West, bearing the burden, not only of providing, but of long-term profitability for the sake of the long-term financial security of their loved ones.
Again, part of it, but not the primarily parts.
Bracketed by the stresses of the market? Give them practical advice to be more attractive instead of the pretty little lies like “godliness is sexy”.
Discipleship is the practical part of leading by example, showing these men how to, and then helping them walk the walk.
This is what men think about. They are not thinking about Adam and Eve. They don’t care. They have real problems and need real help. If the church is able to supply men with resources they can leverage to pursue their values, men will come to them. If not, it’s up to each church how much marketing work it wants to do in order to acquire men. In business, we call this a “customer acquisition cost” (CAC). What is the highest CAC a church would be willing to pay for a single new male member? They are already paying something, from the pamphlets they print to the electricity bill they pay. So, what’s the number? How much do churches want the real men of the world? The ball is really in their court.
Maxwell goes wrong again here. Drawing on business principles to help grow the Church gets you a Church that is ineffective. The Church must not be business focused but people focused.
I quit my job last week, because I have quite harshly overworked myself for the past 7 years due to my own compounding trauma, and reached a psychological breaking point. While I’ll finally get to build my own business creating courses on theology and meta-skills for young adults next year, writing fundraising letters with my wife was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I couldn’t write the appeal for days. And I’m a full-time writer (er, was … or, still am)! I felt too pathetic. My sense of failure as a man was fortified by the 100 Matt Chandler sermons I had listened to when I was in my early twenties:
“What will they think?”
“I’m a failure as a husband.”
“I should be providing.”
“No one will show up.”
“No one cares.”
“Nobody cares about me.”
“This is so embarrassing.”
There you go—that’s masculinity. Pushing your neck against the knife blade of reality and saying, “Here’s who I am, here’s what I’ve got, here’s what I want, and here’s how I plan to get it.”
That is how the world sees men. Unfortunately, many in the Church have taken up this stance and do the same thing to men as the culture does: the demonization of men and masculinity.
My dad was a beast of a man. He taught me how to lift weights, pick up girls, and take shortcuts. I had to spit out some bones, but he taught me much that I never would have learned in the context of the church. And that’s okay. The church isn’t responsible for me. But he did teach me the softness of the most valuable business skills, the harshness of the economy, the abundance of opportunity in every context, a nose for sales tactics and how to parry them.
I met several men in the church in my early teens who taught me many of the basic competencies, including theological skills. I respected these men, because I saw how hard they worked. I saw them give up their seats for women on the subway. I saw them be gentle with hurting men. I saw them exercise restraint during the psychotic episodes of strong, unstable men. I saw them lead their families in morning prayer. I saw them thank God for Christmas presents. I saw stability.
What did I really see?
Men who were measured by their affection for Christ. Temperate. Controlled. Strong. Crass, but strategically appropriate. Open to the visceral, but spiritually disciplined. Family men, with wives and kids. In my mind, as a young man, if I could be like them, everything would be okay. I would be okay.
It wasn’t until several years ago that I found another man I respected just as much. The CEO of the company I worked for. Previously a church planter, now a tech CEO—no longer helping one church raise thousands, but helping churches across the globe raise millions with technology. He did it. He actually built something. Like Rogan, he had a black belt of sorts—that intangible quality that strikes men with something akin to the beatific vision. His skill, his accomplishments, his winsomeness, was enrapturing. When he spoke, his vision resonated with something deep inside me. What was it? It was the same thing I felt when listening to Joe Rogan. It was the same thing I felt when sitting under my pastor’s tree Christmas morning, grateful to have people who saw and loved me.
What was it? How do men speak in such a way so as to enrapture other men? What is the X factor for male mobilization that makes seeing-love meaningful?
It is credibility.
When men are seen and loved by men they find to be credible, they’ve caught the golden snitch. They’ve won the cup. Their hearts belong to that man. You know what I’m talking about. There is a male-male parallel to romantic love that operates along the axis of paternal needs in the male psyche—a father-son bond with significantly untapped potential which, unactualized for too long, succumbs to its half life and spoils into frustration and resentment when a man’s desire for intimacy is unreciprocated.
Again, Maxwell misses the main issue again: respect.
Masculinity whether via credibility, competency, strength or other traits from other men all build respect.
Renn makes note of the “incel” (involuntary celibate) community as a “community of low status young men extremely unhappy that they are unable to have sex with or go out on dates with women.” The incel movement is the tip of the iceberg. Yes, men want sex. They want the attention of women. They want to dominate, engineer, construct, tear down, burn, build, have sex, achieve spiritual enlightenment, and everything in between. But beneath all of this is a desire to receive credible love that cares about real circumstances and doesn’t let go.
In his article, Renn laments: “The church has adopted a very skewed approach that improperly berates and belittles men, and has badly misled them with teachings that just aren’t true.”
Men shouldn’t care what anyone thinks. Men shouldn’t care if churches degenerate them. Who cares? It’s a church. There’s a billion of them. There’s only one of you. Move on.
The real problem facing young Christian men today is not secularism. It’s not Joe Rogan. It’s not the heathen gurus. It’s suicide, alcohol, drugs, and obesity. Those are the four horsemen of the apocalypse slaying men by the thousands each and every day, and the golden thread among these vices is a lack of credible love.
The church has no presence in these conversations. Its pleas for abstinence are sufficient for instructing the church in standards for Christian morality, but bad for managing mental health pandemics. COVID tore out the rotting floorboards of social decorum that were hiding the deep state of mental unhealth that permeates the young American male psyche. Now is not a moment for reflection, but action.
Maxwell again misses the main thrust. Suicide, alcohol, drugs, and obesity are all symptoms of the issues of lack of mission, lack of respect, and lack of good discipleship and teaching men accurately about God.
Men need saving. Saving takes resources. The church has resources. If men can leverage them, they will. If the social interest rate is too high, men will discontinue the church as their spiritual payment provider. Visa can run as many anti-Amex commercials as they want — they will never achieve 100% among credit card users, and neither will the church achieve 100% market share among men.
When businesses lose market share, they don’t blame the clients — they take ownership and fix the problem. Why, when the church loses market share, does it bemoan the spiritual immaturity of the culture rather than taking ownership and fixing the problem itself? There are men to be gotten. Either you’re getting them or you’re not. There’s not a deep social force at place driving men out of the church. Jordan Peterson once said: “You get the spouse you deserve.” Likewise, the church has the demographics it deserves.
The manosphere will be forgotten in 10 years, but we will all still be here. The universe will always bring more suffering. And men will make a choice either to become resentful and cruel, or hopeful and constructive. That’s why they flock to Peterson — men are looking for reasons not to kill themselves, and the church isn’t giving them a good one.
The real measure of a man is the man in his life who loves him best—he will function as his measure both in the sense that the younger man will strive to be like him, and yet, he also shows him how to be a measured man who, upon hearing what he believes is the church’s disdain for him, simply doesn’t care. To a man, the man who credibly loves him is his measure, for good or ill.
The measure of a man is the man in his life who loves him the best? Nah. That’s a recipe for failure.
Maxwell had a good setup to transition this to what a “real man” according to the Bible looks like. For instance,
1 Kings 2: 1As David’s time to die drew near, he charged Solomon his son, saying, 2 “I am going the way of all the earth. Be strong, therefore, and show yourself a man. 3 Keep the charge of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His ordinances, and His testimonies, according to what is written in the Law of Moses, that you may succeed in all that you do and wherever you turn, 4 so that the Lord may carry out His promise which He spoke concerning me, saying, ‘If your sons are careful of their way, to walk before Me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul, you shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’
Real men focus on putting their strength in God first, and everything flows from that. But Maxwell misses the context plaguing men again and again, and if you do a secular based analysis without information your opinion on a Biblical worldview you only get failure.
The posts in this series have honestly gotten progressively worse over time. Aaron’s was obviously pretty solid as he’s known about the ‘sphere for a long time, but the subsequent posters are more and more unfamiliar. Their boomer complementarianism colors their view of what they are saying, or they just aren’t taking actual Biblical worldviews and relying on secular analysis.