When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a professional wrestler. It was the 1980s — the height of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and pre-reality TV Hulk Hogan. True masculine theater of the absurd, complete with gargantuan men in tights who inspired the awe of children with physical mass and acrobatics.
That changed a few years later when I attended several wrestling matches in person, marking the beginning of the end of my affection for this kind of masculinity. With my evolving pre-adolescent mind, live attendance betrayed the illusions television could hide. From home, I had the benefit of cameramen angling to conceal faux jabs and slaps, and I was insulated from the kinds of people who go to wrestling matches alone — drunk, smelly, Hulk-a-Mania T-Shirt-sporting 40-year-olds, offering beer to children and swearing that “This shit is real!” And television somehow protected me from the unsettling sense that wrestlers are more caricatures than men, often with features downright peculiar and grotesque.
Puberty hit me like a freight train around the same time. I whiled away classroom hours admiring budding female classmates and felt laden with teenage angst. Much of it emanated from a growing belief that I did not fit in with my male peers, in spite of what seems in hindsight to be considerable evidence to the contrary. I was athletic, ran with the popular crowd and fluttered from girlfriend to girlfriend. I could play and talk the part. But I never really “felt” it. I was too needy and too eager to be liked, and too introspective, which meant I came up with a hundred reasons others didn’t like me, real or imagined. I was anxious and self-loathing most of the time. Much of this followed me well into adulthood.
Some of this may be rooted in my parents’ well-rounded approach to raising boys. My older brothers and I were encouraged (required) to embrace diversity in our activities. I played baseball, basketball and football, and “hoorah-ed” in Air Force Junior ROTC, but I was also in choir, theater and scholar bowl, and played trumpet and piano. I never had the sense from my parents that athletics were somehow more “manly” than performing on stage or enriching my mind.
To the extent my parents adhered to conventional American gender roles within the home, it was primarily about a fair and equitable division of labor in the areas each was gifted, a policy that extended to us as well. This is no doubt why one of my many chores was letting the dog out to poop.
On the other hand, it was clear that this kind of renaissance thinking was not desirable among my boyhood milieu. Each was to go according to his kind, and there could only be one — jocks with jocks, brainiacs with brainiacs, band dorks with band dorks, etc.
But this definition of masculinity was and is too narrow for me.
As an adult and counselor, I’ve come to realize that my experience of “unbelonging” is not uncommon among men. I work with it in my counseling practice all the time. Christian men are no exception, as anyone who’s ever been to a “Christian men’s event” can tell you.
“Imagine 10,000 men, fathers, sons, brothers and Christ-followers, coming together to worship God and learn more about the life of true adventure He intends for us as men.”
That’s an actual description of one such event. If you’re like me, you’re very, very nervous to read any further.
“Even more, imagine a two-day event packed full of … the stuff that men love: hunting, fishing, football, motorcycles, racing, extreme sports and other outdoor activities — featuring some of the leading experts in the world.” This is alongside pictures of the guys from Duck Dynasty, Tim Tebow and other heroes of sport, all of which I am supposed to relate to because I am a man.
But I just feel like I’m in eighth grade all over again.
In “Wild at Heart,” which has sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide, evangelical Christian author John Eldrege remarks, “A man needs a battle to fight … If we can reawaken that fierce quality in a man, hook it up to a higher purpose, release the warrior within, then the boy can grow up and become truly masculine.” Eldrege eventually makes some worthwhile statements about understanding interpersonal wounds and dealing with fundamental identity questions; but his approach to masculinity, often like that of the evangelical church at large, is fundamentally flawed. Flawed like the WWF, but with less irony. It fails to embrace the great complexity of created order in and among masculine identities.
Like most other components of the self, our masculine identities are not binary. With very little exception, there is no fixed “this is masculine” and “this is not,” except what is defined as such by fluid culture — European “masculine” is often the antithesis of the American kind. There exists within masculine identity a continuum of expressions informed by cultural, economic, ethnic, racial and religious factors. When we fail to acknowledge this, we needlessly estrange those whose experiences — and therefore, masculinity — differ. This is so critical to Christian men because failing in this way alienates our fathers, sons and brothers from themselves, us and, ultimately, from Jesus, for it is to Him our rallying together aims to draw us. Having had this obstacle placed in their way, men are forced to find Jesus in spite of our ministries rather than because of them.
For example, boys and men from historically pacifist Christian traditions, or who simply aren’t enthused by bravado and militaristic metaphor, will find themselves unwelcome when the call to Jesus always invokes Eldrege’s “battle” language. In this sense, to claim the path to realization of the masculine identity in Christ is through releasing one’s “inner warrior” is not only insensitive — it is sinful. Reinforced and reproduced several generations over, it becomes so exaggerated and cartoonish that Christian men’s events feature steroid-freaks ripping apart phonebooks in the name of Jesus. It’s hard to imagine this is what the author of Hebrews had in mind when he admonished that we meet together to “stir one another to love and good works.”
It’s surely impossible to have a totally pure pursuit of our masculine identities in Christ since our experiences are always tinting our glasses in one shade or another. But it is entirely possible to recognize this fallen tendency and work actively against it in His mercy. After all, it was at church that I first learned of the complementarity of diversity — that we are one body with many members, each with a different but worthwhile function. It was at church that I learned we may enjoy the warm sunshine of corporate worship and the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit in individual contemplative acts. And it was at church that I first learned of a banner that bore a lion and a lamb.