Alpha Males, Beta Males, "toxic masculinity," and real Manhood

Or, we might call this post "A Good Masculinity is hard to find..."

A few months ago I was talking to a young, nominally Catholic, man who has a son, a toddler.  We were talking about what it means to be parents, and I made a comment along the lines of "And now you must teach him how to be a man."  To which my acquaintance replied, "As soon as I figure out whatever that means..."

There seems to be a great deal of confusion in our culture about what indeed does it mean to be a man.  It seems that lots of people (including lots of women) are more comfortable referring to the men they know as "guys" rather than as "men."  It is almost as if we aren't quite sure whether they really are men yet.  

I suspect that, in fact, an uncertainty about "whether I'm really a man" actually lies behind some crime and domestic abuse, as men try to prove (to themselves) that they are strong and worthy of respect/fear and that this somehow makes them "real men."

Why this confusion?  How have we lost the vision of what it means to be a man, and how to get there?

Part of this results from the decline of a common culture thanks in part to multiculturalism (which is ultimately "anti-culturalism" if you think about it - no culture is permitted to be THE culture, so no cultural practices or ideals can ever be normative and universal), and partly this results from the (related) rise of individualism and informalism (and those two are connected).  The confluence of these shifts have left us bereft a common set of rites of passage for boys across our culture, intended to instill in them certain virtues and character traits, as part of the pathway into manhood.

Added to all that (or perhaps because of it) we've got the phenomenon of "prolonged adolescence" and we have to wonder if the 30-year-olds who still live with their parents and cannot provide for themselves really are "men" yet.  Being able to provide for and protect one's self and, indeed, one's wife and children has traditionally been one of the marks of manhood that still lingers in our cultural imagination (and for good reason).

Added to all of that, some are now questioning the value of Manhood itself.
Just today I saw an ad/commercial on YouTube urging us to "evolve the definition" of masculinity.  This is part of the Left's** reaction against what the good folks on the Left** call "toxic masculinity" - the domineering, aggressive, and (often sexually) abusive sorts of men who have come to flourish in some quarters of a culture that has largely thrown off Christian morality and the classical virtues, a culture that celebrates the individual's desires and (especially) a "free-for-all" sexual ethic where "nothing is taboo" any longer.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has a Biblical understanding of human nature that throwing off sexual restraints would result in a rise of sexual predation.  And so it has.

The Bible teaches that sad the history of men attempting to dominate women (essentially, what is now being called 'toxic masculinity') is actually a consequence of Original Sin, of the Fall of Mankind from our original state of grace (see Genesis 3).  Christianity teaches that this problem is not simply widespread, it is actually universal - we are all tainted by sin - and that the only solution is the renewal of each hardened heart by the grace offered freely to us by Jesus Christ.  This grace we receive by faith in Him, by inviting him to be Lord over our lives, by reception of the Sacraments, and by a life of prayer and devotion.

The Left is - unsurprisingly - rushing to throw out the baby of masculinity with the bathwater of sexual abuse, assuming that THE problem is strong and assertive men.  The "Alpha male" must be rooted out of our culture and replaced by the "Beta male," because it is assumed he will be much nicer to women.
But, as I've said, we don't have a problem with sexual predators because our men are too manly, but rather because they are immoral, because they lack virtue, because our society has thrown off all restraints when it comes to sex.  The truth is that the 'Beta male' will also harm women, though probably in different ways.

Also unsurprisingly, the solution offered by the Left will fail, precisely because it doesn't fully appreciate human nature and culture.  Alpha males, strong and assertive men, aren't going away, and no amount of PSAs on YouTube will change that (just ask yourself whether such PSA's will ever gain the passionate viewership of, say, the SuperBowl).  That vigorous Masculinity is here to stay is a good thing, for in a dangerous world we need brave and strong men to maintain to protect lives and the peace of communities.

A couple of weeks ago I heard an NPR interviewer speaking with a former Navy Seal about a book the Veteran had written about raising kids who are courageous and aggressive problem solvers.  Toward the end of the interview, the NPR interviewer made the comment, "Some of my colleagues did not even want me to interview you today, fearing that your book is promoting a 'toxic masculinity'; how do you answer that charge?"
I chuckled to myself and thought "If a foreign nation invades our country and starts killing people in the streets (as has indeed happened before), or if terrorists invade your office building or commuter train, you folks at NPR are going to wish you had a lot more men around who were aggressive problem solvers."

But the good folks on the Left are certainly correct on this point: Alpha males certainly can be abusive, dominating, rash, insensitive to the needs of others, and all the rest.  Masculinity can and often does turn 'toxic'.  From the Christian point of view this is no surprise precisely because every one of us is fallen and corrupted by the power of sin.  The problem is not masculinity itself, the problem is that masculinity (just like femininity, actually - though this post if focused upon masculinity) has been infected and corrupted by sin.
There must be restraints for all of us against immorality, there must be social pressures that push us toward good behavior.  Above all there must be ideals to strive after, there must be a vision of Manhood that directs our energies and passions toward the Good and away from sin.

And the Bible and the Christian tradition gives us precisely this vision.

What does it look like to be a man of God in a fallen and corrupted (and often dangerous world)?  In the Bible we are offered the ideal the "Warrior Poet", the sage-soldier, the man who is at the same time ferocious and stern in battle to defend his family, community, and his faith - but also sensitive, tender-hearted towards his loved ones, spiritual, and artistic.

In Scripture this ideal is seen in King David.  He was both the warrior who could slay the giant Goliath but also the poet who could write so many of the Psalms that stand as some of the most beloved Poetry in human history.  He was an artist, a musician, a sensitive soul who openly wept and danced in public, but also a "man's man", a leader of armies whose strength, courage, and bearing inspired other men to follow him.

He studied the arts of war, but also the arts of love and worship, even as he also applied himself to the study of the Holy Scriptures of God.  David was faithful, responsible, dutiful, ready to defend and provide for his family and his community.  He was a man.
Interestingly enough when Michelangelo set out to sculpt an "ideal man", he produced his famous David.

David was an able fighter, who slew many of his enemies in battle - but he also showed mercy to his enemies, like King Saul when David had the chance to kill him in the cave.  And, while standard procedure in those violent days was to wipe out all family members of a potential rival king so as to secure one's own claim to the throne, David after he became king, allowed Saul's lame grandson Mephibosheth to feast at David's own table - and act of kindness and generosity unheard of in those days.

In all these ways David really was "a man after God's own heart."  For God is also the artistic Creative who is at the same time the jealous defender of his own people, as Pharaoh discovered when he tried to keep them enslaved.

Even when David failed (colossally) to live up to his own ideals, even as a sinner he becomes an instructive example for manhood, since all men also sin.  When David fell into disastrous sin, he heard the prophetic word of correction and actually heeded it: he did not equivocate or deny wrongdoing, he repented - even publicly.  He left a public record of his prayer of repentance for us as well.  In his penitence we see not only his sinfulness, but also piety and humility and honesty on display.

The virtues of King David help us see what manhood is all about.  Indeed "virtue" is derived from the Latin word for "man."  To be most truly manly is to be virtuous.  In the New Testament we see the virtues of David and many more virtues lifted up: generosity, charity, humility, chastity, simplicity, courage in the face of danger, resolve & grit in the face of suffering, honesty, temperance, self-control, and so on.  We see the virtues taught to us in the Beatitudes of Matthew chapter 5 and in the Fruit of the Spirit of Galatians chapter 5 and in the great 'theological virtues' of 1 Corinthians 13: Faith, Hope, and Love.  Psalm 1 describes a virtuous man (in much the same way that Proverbs 31 describes a virtuous woman).  In all these passages, the Bible says,  "Here is what it means to truly be a man as God intended."

All of these virtues are perfectly and completely embodied in the Life of Christ himself, the truest man that ever lived (which is the double-meaning behind Pontius Pilate's words in John 19:5).  We seek, in our own imperfect ways, to live them out and embody them in our own varying circumstances and vocations.

As the teaching of the Bible helped shape the cultures of Europe, the same ideal - the ideal of the Warrior-Poet, the Strong-Sensitive, also came to be celebrated in Christendom as Chivalry.  In Medieval Christian literature these virtues were embodied by King Arthur (the model of a wise and Christian king), and, most especially, by Sir Lancelot, the ideal knight.

Here is a great video (which is actually an essay by C.S. Lewis accompanied by illustrations) about the Medieval concept of Chivalry and how it is a corrective both to a 'toxic masculinity' that is all about strength and dominance, but without sensitivity and mercy on the one hand, and a "beta" masculinity on the other hand that is all sensitivity, but never strong or stern when the situation calls for it.
Lewis, of course, was (like Tolkien or Winston Churchill and so many others in those days) himself a poet and artist who also served as a soldier and fought to defend his homeland.  They were chivalrous; they were men (not 'guys'); they were warrior-poets.

May God look with mercy on our broken and confused society and grant us godly and virtuous men.

**Terms like "Left" and "Right", "Liberal" and "Conservative" are short-hand expressions to refer to groups that share certain overlapping beliefs or perspectives.  As such I recognize that the terms are necessarily un-nuanced and problematic, since very few individuals will perfectly fit the "mold."  No doubt plenty of people will be happy to refer to me as a member of the "Religious Right" - I don't identify myself as such, but it is an understandable short-hand, since a great many of my views, theological and political will align with what is usually understood by that term; though I strongly maintain that some views and attitudes will also be quite different than what is usually implied by "Religious Right."  No doubt the same works both ways.

As I use the term "Left" in this piece, I have in mind the editors and reporters working for institutions like NPR and the New York Times, other media figures such as the Ladies on "The View," as well as academic figures like those I personally took courses from in college who seemed determined to find misogyny under every rock and behind every tree (or at least, behind every etymology).  Even my conflating such actual individuals under the heading of "the Left" will be inadequate to actually take on board their various differences and uniqueness-es, but such is the nature of any short-hand terminology.   

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