The church and toxic masculinity
Content Warning: This article contains discussion about suicide
Tuesday 19 November marks the United Nations’ International Men’s Day. Since 1975, the occasion has marked an opportunity to discuss men’s health, wellbeing, mental wellness, and place in society. The day has at some points been dismissed or used as an opportunity for political talking points (such as when an Australian government minister took up the occasion to argue that men were scared to talk about gender issues because they may be shouted down by feminists.) And yet, it is a rarely-delineated opportunity, a point on the calendar where we are encouraged to discuss how we understand masculinity, and how this might impact on men’s health. For the church, this is a discussion that is just beginning.
In Australia, the number of men who commit suicide is widely acknowledged as being at endemic proportions, at nearly double the national road toll. The number of men who murder women is another stark figure acknowledged by governments as being at crisis point.
These are complex issues, unique to those men who end up taking their lives, or those of others. While there cannot be any oversimplifying the issues that contribute to the wider problems, one overarching narrative that seeks to explain why these problems are a part of contemporary Australian society is ‘toxic masculinity’.
In essence, toxic masculinity is a concept that suggests that men are expected to undertake certain functions and activities, even if it ends up doing harm to themselves and others. As Olivia Wells writes in New Matilda, “Toxic masculinity promotes an apathetic, strong arm pursuit of life, one that does not allow for emotional expression, processing and healing, acceptance and validation of self. This creates a society that is unable to recover from trauma. Men are suffering under these conditions too.”
One illustrative example is the saying “man up”, which is used to encourage men to fortify through pain or to keep going during times of adversity. The saying has been criticised as being part of this toxicity, as it can literally lead to emotional and physical damage.
Another aspect to this toxic masculinity that critics have pointed out is the way that it presents masculine identity as being fragile. Philosopher John Ralston Saul notes in his book Voltaire’s Bastards that western men can face ‘losing’their masculinity if they are deemed to be acting in ways considered effeminate.
In certain Christian circles, the notions of stoicism and male headship in relationships and church leadership are areas where toxic masculinity may be said to rear its head.
For years, a ‘Christian’ notion of masculinity has sold books, conferences, and training courses. Mark Driscoll stands as perhaps the most famous speaker and author to have broached the subject. Driscoll gained quasi-celebrity status out of his presentation of a conservative view of masculinity couched in aggressive terms. For instance, in 2000, Dricoll claimed that Americans were living in a “completely pussified nation.”
Driscoll’s views of masculinity appear to have led to his downfall. After complaints mounted that he had been abusive towards members of his church, he was removed.
Other sources of inspiration for Christians looking to find some version of masculinity that they might cling to come from outside the church. Canadian Psychologist Jordan Peterson has made his way into public consciousness by advocating a number of life principles. These folksy, seemingly common-sense ideas (like starting to turn things around by cleaning your room) revolve around the notion of sorting oneself out (he has drawn on Jesus’ advice to take the log out of our own eye before pointing out the speck in others’ while making this point). This folksy, seemingly common sense approach belies what has largely made Peterson controversial: his approach to gender, which has been criticised as providing toxic masculinity with its own mythos. Peterson contends that masculinity itself is under attack in the west. Much of Peterson’s work reinforces the idea that men are biologically and innately wired to be the dominant sex. At one point, he suggested that he found it hard to deal with “crazy women”, because he could not hit them.
It was Dr Peterson’s refusal to acknowledge preferred pronouns in the debate over a particular piece of Canadian legislation that saw him become something of a prophet for an audience of disaffected, right-leaning young men. Despite Peterson’s denial that the label should be applied to him, the alt right’s embrace of Dr Peterson has been something that several commentators have written about. Slightly less acknowledged is the way that Peterson’s ideas about gender and men’s roles are becoming championed in some Christian circles. Peterson is himself an agnostic, but he draws on a number of biblical images, phrases, and biblical passages to illustrate his points.
For Christians wanting to reinforce their viewpoints on sexuality and gender, Peterson’s explanations seemingly provide an empirical foundation with a biblical element. This Christian fascination with Peterson and his ideas has extended to invitations he has received for speaking engagements, including a visiting professorship offered to him by the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity (the offer was later rescinded).
Psychology professor Warren Throckmorton recently made a direct comparison between Peterson and Driscoll, arguing that they both blame women for a masculinity that they think is under siege.
“Many in Driscoll’s orbit told me that he attracted young male followers who wanted a father figure. I don’t know if anyone has done a comparative study of Driscoll and Peterson but I suspect there is significant overlap. Driscoll famously had some things to say about the place of women which might resonate well with Peterson fans,” Throckmorton writes.
“Peterson has found a way to sell a message which has found a home with certain men over the years who are looking for a reason why they experience the world the way they do. Blaming moms, egalitarians, or feminists is another way to say with Adam, “Lord, it is this woman’s fault.””
If the church wants to combat toxic masculinity, it certainly has scriptural resources that it can draw from.
In an opinion
piece for Patheos, Rob Dixon
observes that Jesus was counter-cultural in his own day, in how he treated
Jesus’ brand of masculinity was one where women were, among other things, honoured (Matthew 26:6-13), listened to (Mark 7:24-30), and embraced as evangelists (John 4:1-42). For Jesus, women could be disciples (Luke 10:38-42), they could travel with him (Matthew 27:52), and they were worthy of serving as positive examples in his stories (Luke 21:1-4). In perhaps his single most revolutionary act around gender, in a world where the testimony of a woman was not allowed in court, Jesus entrusted the message of his resurrection to Mary, the first person in history to bear the gospel (Matthew 28:1-10). Indeed, scholar Walter Wink notes that “Jesus violated the mores of his time in every single encounter with women recorded in the four Gospels.”
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor