Shortly after my recent blog about Christian masculinity, I read a moving, related piece by Alan Noble, of ChristandPopCulture.com. It was a response to an interview with Christian author Eric Metaxas about his newest book, "Seven Men," which chronicles the lives of seven of Metaxas' heroes. Noble admits he didn't read the book. I have read as much as I desired.
Like many evangelical Christians, Metaxas believes there is a "crisis of masculinity" in America. "[S]omewhere along the line in the last 40 years we lost our idea of what a man is." (It should be noted, whether ironically or not, that Metaxas is 50.) To be fair, others have claimed this crisis as far back as at least the late '90s, when most Baby-Boomers hit mid-life.
While Metaxas' stories in "Seven Men" are compelling, his discussions of Christian masculinity are clumsy and poorly thought-out, which is uncharacteristic of his writing. He lacks any reflective function regarding the arbitrary nature of his premises, and to quote Noble, "make[s] claims that are indefensible...use[s] terms loosely ... [and] draw[s] upon cultural images of masculinity and femininity without considering their roots and presumptions."
Here's one reason I suspect Metaxas makes these kinds of passé gaffes so easily, and seemingly without knowledge. It is a generational phenomenon.
In Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, Susan Faludi eloquently points out that fathers of Baby Boomers, after living through the kind of hell depicted in Saving Private Ryan and The Front Line, returned home from World War II and Korea to a completely new world. They exchanged blood and battle for suburbia and corporate campuses. A post-war father's life was "altogether too newly out of the box for him to understand it, much less pass it on to his son." To make matters worse,
For Boomers who eventually went to war themselves, history has taught us they were set up. Vietnam was a war our boys couldn't win. Instead of achieving the status of their fathers, they fought bravely for each other, only to return as poster-children for a politician's war long out of vogue with ordinary citizens.
"Because the fathers offered few particulars about their 'baptisms' at Normandy or Midway or Heartbreak Ridge, war was a remote romance that each boy had to embellish with details culled from Sergeant Rock and his combat adventures in DC Comics, or Sergeant Bilko and an endless procession of television war series..."
All of this resulted in a kind of generational estrangement germane to the fallout of war: whether physical or emotional, sons lost their fathers. This must be at least partially why "war" language is often so implicit and dominant in the masculinity meta-narrative of Boomer men, whether in their approach to Christianity or business, and why they invoke "hero" language so casually and with such romanticism. This language is their attempt to traverse the estrangement from their fathers.
In my counseling practice, most Boomer men only acknowledge and process purposeful or incidental father wounds with great difficulty, often saying, "There's no point in hashing that out. My dad was doing the best he could." This is half true. We're all doing the best we can with our children, and inevitably make many mistakes. Yet the point in addressing wounds, to us and by us, is that it mobilizes them into a source of healing.
Often unbeknownst to them, Boomer men are hashing out their wounds -- by idealizing their fathers and father figures as in books like "Seven Men" or Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation." I'm not questioning the valor of their subjects, but pointing out clearly a reality I heard my own grandfather state in reference to himself and others in his era: They were "just men." This is the great claim of all heroes, and ironically, what makes them heroic. To focus so exclusively on their heroism that we neglect their humanity amounts to hero worship rather than admiration, and propagates false masculine ideas up to which no one can measure. It sends sons and fathers on the impossible task of being heroes rather than "just men," and as revealed in therapy, keeps Boomer men in a perpetual state of comparison/contrast with their dads, where they must always be "less than."
The great tragedy for Christian men is that this is the antithesis of Christ's own relationship with His Father, about which He claimed, "I and my Father are One." Scripture clarifies that Jesus and the Father have distinct personhoods, but the same nature or essence. What are we, as fathers and sons, if not the essence of one another? For us to live as though the opposite is true, as though sons are "less than" their fathers, is to deny the essence of both, and certainly, the dignity of sons.
When we offer "less than" as our legacy to our sons, for example, by stating like Metaxas that they are "not heroic" if they spend time playing video games, not only do we commit an egregious non-sequitir (as Noble correctly points out), but we repeat the cycle of masculine idealizing and estranging, placing now our own standards as the arbitrary threshold which must be met, ruling out the sons we say we are trying to draw near. It forces on sons a choice between rejecting themselves and rejecting their fathers. This is the tale of Generation X, by and large.
In coming to a greater understanding of Christian masculinity hereforward, I am calling us to introspect and to adopt more fitting approach -- one that bears the fruit of Scripture's high calling, "reconciling the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers." We must start by carefully examining the language we use to define ourselves as Christian men, and whether that language actually brings us together in the crucible of our experiences. We must hash out our wounds, and use them as the pathway to each other and ultimately, to Christ Jesus.
We must realize the truth I am happy to report I have realized as an adult: I and my father are one, and that unity is good. We actively work against the tendency to idealize or belittle, instead humbling ourselves and forging connection based on our shared spiritual legacy. As the children of God, we can both claim about ourselves, "This is my Son, in whom I am well-pleased." Indeed, this is the spiritual legacy of all men, and all people, who are in Christ.
Follow Ryan Thomas Neace on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ryanthomasn