A Good (Definition of) Man Is Hard to Find
How We Define Manhood and Masculinity
Previous Post in This Series: The Male Malaise: Why Confusion About Masculinity is Causing Too Many Men to Disengage and Check Out
The past years have seen a massive spike in debates, articles, and books on the topic of masculinity, most centered around a call to redefine what masculinity means. What does it mean to be a man?
We call for it constantly. Be a man. Act like a man. Man up. Real men don’t…
But it’s worth asking yourself, do you have a good definition for it? How would you define what it means to be a man?
It’s typical to respond with either a list of personality traits or one of “manly” skills. For example, the controversial APA guidelines on counseling men and boys listed the attributes of masculinity as including “stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression.” The APA concluded that these traits are harmful and has suggested their own evolved definition of masculinity.
On the other end of the interpretive spectrum are lists of skills. Men know how to use tools, smoke meat, and can throw a football. One recent study attempted to clarify what activities millennial men and women most associated with “feeling like a man.” At the top of their list, with 92% agreement was “cooking on the grill,” followed by, playing sports, fixing appliances, and paying bills.
Both attempts to define masculinity focus on inherent traits or abilities. Men, often subconsciously, seem to be feeling the pressure of our performance-based definitions. These approaches cut too many men out, and they tend to be based too much on shifting expectations. With such a weak foundation, it’s no surprise that masculinity is so easily called into question and supplanted with radically alternative definitions. If masculinity is nothing more than aggression and grilling, why not attempt to redefine it. But it’s a strawman. We may call ourselves men, but we are in desperate need of a stronger definition of it.
Is Bach less a man for taking up the organ?
Growing up, I was pretty terrible at sports. I assumed it was a lack of athleticism, strange considering my Dad played college football and my brother was a talented high school pitcher. My dad eventually became the superintendent of our State’s Highway Patrol, and my brother is currently a Captain in the Marine Corp. By some strange leap of genetics, my brother ended up six feet five inches with a varsity-clocked fastball while I ended up five foot eleven and playing first base, the position with the absolute lowest probability of having to throw a baseball. I played up until the year tryouts were required. I had enough self-awareness not to try.
Looking back, my real problem was not a lack of ability but a lack of competitiveness. I was more interested in conversation than competition. Neither can I honestly claim the masculine traits of stoicism or aggression. I’ve always been more empathetic, a trait I’ve come to recognize even more as I see it in my own son.
While I’m pretty handy with tools, a strange tick-borne disease has left me allergic to red meat (I’ve written about it previously on this blog). I often eat vegan—definitively not masculine; although, I’m also an avid bird hunter and enjoy few things more than an afternoon of sporting clays with my 20 gauge Benelli. I guess my point is that my own life fits oddly into the trait/skill definitions of masculinity. I think that is true for the majority of men I know. So why do we go about determining our masculinity by checking boxes and assigning ourselves a score? Ten points for driving a truck; minus five for crying at the Notebook.
These flimsy effort-based definitions fail one of my favorite philosophical ideas, Kant’s Categorical imperative. In explaining his universalizability principle, Kant stated, “Act only according to that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.” In other words, if you’re going to claim that real men BBQ and drink beer, then be consistent. Tell the recovering alcoholic, sober for one year, that he has had to trade his man-card for his sobriety.
What I’ve been searching for is a definition of manhood which can be true for all men—a potential for all men. Do we really want to insist that all men should aggressively pursue sports and guns? Is Bach less a man for taking up the organ? Walt Disney less for doodling cartoon mice? How about Winston Churchill who loved to paint or Dr. Seuss who obsessed over kids rhymes?
I think most of us are intuitive enough to recognize that our lists aren’t actually the measure of a man, but what has surprised me is our inability—particularly as Christians—to provide an alternative definition. Interestingly, adding the qualifier, “Christian” makes the process of defining even more perplexing. What is a man? What is a Christian man?
The Bible On Masculinity
I’m struck by the fact that the Bible doesn’t provide a simple definition of masculinity. In fact, in my opinion, it speaks very rarely to the topic. There are distinct discussions about the roles of fathers and husbands. And often Christians turn to these responsibilities in defining biblical manhood, but what do we make of Paul’s passion for the calling of singleness. Does authentic manhood require a wife and children? You want to be the one to suggest that Paul was less a man for his singleness?
Other Christian definitions tend to take biblical texts addressed to “man” and individualize them to biological men, while at the same time universalizing the same word elsewhere to speak to mankind. Similarly, we often point to Christ as a model of true masculinity. But does Christianity offer a similarly ideal figure of femininity? Is Christ a model for only men? It is to both men and women Christ presents his call to follow. Where the Bible does offer definitive lists of attributes—the fruit of the spirit and the beatitudes—both men and women are called to their adoption. Both men and women are called to spiritual poverty, mourning, meekness, love, kindness, and gentleness.
But with equal conviction, I recognize that the Bible does not deny nor ignore the created reality of gender. It is one of the foundational elements of the creation account and constantly an undercurrent through both testaments. Being male is not something the Bible ignores.
As culture continues to question the authoritativeness of gender, appealing to cultural construction to propose a more fluid interpretation, believers have rightfully held to their conviction that God created a gendered world. And it’s our culture’s destabilizing interpretations that make the need for a Biblical definition more critical than ever.
So I’ve been asking, as Christians, how do we define masculinity? I’ve asked pastor friends. I’ve asked my millennial peers. I’ve asked older mentors. And while most of the Christian men I know are committed to being a “man of God,” when asked, they too struggle to articulate exactly what that means. We are aiming at a target we can’t quite make out and can’t quite describe.
In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Michael Ian Black lamented:
“To be a girl today is to be the beneficiary of decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its many forms, and expressions. Boys, though, have been left behind. No commensurate movement has emerged to help them navigate toward a full expression of their gender. It’s no longer enough to ‘be a man’—we no longer even know what that means.”
Definitions Matter More Than You Think
Definitions matter, but maybe not in the way you think. Most linguists will acknowledge that the definitions of words are not nearly as fixed as that fifteen-pound Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary would like you to think. Words shift considerably in their meaning. In fact, a dictionary is more a historical document than an authority. Words are defined by usage, and dictionaries serve only to track how words have been used. Change how a word is used, and you can literally rewrite the dictionary.
I previously referenced the APA’s guidelines for a new kind of masculinity. They explicitly acknowledged their goal is to do just that, to create a new, evolved definition for masculinity.
Definitions may seem boring, but we need them now more than ever. The discussion about masculinity deserves more than just consumer commercials, youtube rants, and 30 second sound bites.
Aristotle once wrote, “How many a dispute could have been deflated into a single paragraph if the disputants had dared to define their terms.” I think he was right. Defining our terms won’t solve the conflict with culture, but it will consolidate the debate into its more fundamental questions. Definitions quickly highlight what is really in dispute. I’m convinced that beneath our talk of redefining gender rumbles a rebellion against the creator’s authority and his call to individual responsibility. That rebellion is, out of necessity, eroding the foundations of masculinity.
As Eugene Peterson put it: “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them, and then they end up using us. Our imaginations become blunted. We end up dealing only with surfaces, functions, roles.” We owe it to ourselves, to our sons, and to our friends to dig deeper. Our words are a responsibility which we must bear responsibly.
There is plenty of evidence for the collapsing definition of manhood.
Man-this and Man-that
In a fascinating article entitled, “The Death of Words,” C. S. Lewis explained how words could gradually lose their meaning. One of the signs he pointed to was a word, once precious in meaning, now requiring modifiers to make it precious again. He used the word “gentleman” as an example. Lewis wrote, “As long as gentleman has a clear meaning, it is enough to say that So-and-so is a gentleman. When we begin saying that he is “a real gentleman” or “a true gentleman” or “a gentleman in the truest sense” we may be sure that the word has not long to live.” The modifiers expose the word’s lack of meaning.
Mark Peters makes a similar suggestion in comedically pointing out our cultural proliferation of “man” words, asking if it’s a prefix or an identity crisis. He writes:
“Is it time for a manogram? Did you get your manimony check? Or is what you really need a (shudder) manzilian? If you feel like you’re seeing man words everywhere, you’re not alone. Movies, TV shows, ads, and the Web have been pumping them out. Some are painful puns, some crude slang, and as a genre, they say a great deal about our ever-in-flux gender roles.”
I think Lewis and Peters expose the demise of the word “man.” Take the qualifiers we now had to masculinity. He is a real man. He is a man’s man. He is a good man. He is a godly man. He is an alpha male. A macho man. Some of these amalgamations have even been added to the dictionary.
I’m not a dictionary, but how we use these words matters more than the dictionary. So, I want to offer three preliminary definitions to help reestablish what it means to be a man. I want to look at the words: Male, Masculine, and Man.
Def. Male: “a male person: a man or a boy”
To be male is to refer to a biological distinction of sex. There are male horses, sometimes called stallions. There are male bears, technically called boars. And there are male lemur monkeys identified by biologists as dictators; the females are called princesses—Wikipedia it.
We similarly categorize humans into the sexes, male and female. These titles are given based on biological distinctions. We don’t expect a horse to earn its status as a male stallion, nor does it take a degree in biology or a license in veterinary medicine to recognize the distinctions between a stallion and a mare. To identify a male is to make a biological distinction.
Even the most progressive definitions of gender identity—those who considering gender socially constructed and non-binary—will usually acknowledge the basic sexual categories of male and female. Science has even identified the precise prenatal hormonal exposures which steer the developing fetus towards male and female physicality. Even here there are complexities though. Our genetics can produce anomalies, in the same way, that all human experience fails in some way to possess its potential ideal.
Here is where Christian faith inevitably interjects itself. The consequences of sin are not just individual and abstract. Creation cries out for restoration: storms, diseases, and chromosomal defects. Mount Everest is not the full realization of its creation. The Bahamas are not the full paradise of Genesis. Neither are our bodies the fully intended biology of their creation.
The distinction of being male and female is not a false reality forced on our existence; instead, it is the foundational reality complicated by the existence of human brokenness. It is male and female, which God created in His own image and called good. It also means that maleness is not an achievement but a created reality, one which we await the full realization of in a new creation.
In God’s image, he created them, male and female.
Def. Masculinity: “qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of males.”
Here, the most important distinction I hope to make is pointing out that masculinity is too often expressed as the goal of being a man, but technically, masculinity is not an ideal to which we aim but rather an experience which we possess in complex and varying ways. Masculinity refers to common attributes men experience. If there is a biological distinction of maleness, then it follows that there would be a dissection in experiencing that maleness. Masculinity refers to those collective male attributes and qualities.
You can see this reference to attributes in the traditional definition of the word. Webster’s 1913 Dictionary defines masculinity as “qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men.” It goes on to offer an interesting example of the word’s use. “That lady, after her husband’s death, held the reins with a masculine energy.” Here, masculine is used to describe the characteristics of the woman’s actions. It isn’t a statement of biology but one of description.
Many will be familiar with theories on how the big five personality traits are distributed differently between men and women. Professor Jordan Peterson has done much to point out the research indicating that women tend to score higher in personality traits such as extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
Other studies, such as one published by Italian cognitive psychologist Marco Del Giudince, have suggested that there is an “overlap of only 10% between the male and female distributions.” As Del Giudice concluded, “there are grounds to expect robust and wide-ranging sex differences in this area, resulting in strongly sexually differentiated patterns of emotion, thought, and behavior – as if there were two human natures.”
That’s a scientifically precise way of saying that there are measurable differences between men and women, and we should expect there to be different experiences. It’s these common traits, typical in biological males that we can categorize as masculinity.
It’s important to note, the possession of traits does not mean that those traits are necessarily good nor intended by God at creation. If sin has introduced genetic distortions, it has also introduced trait distortions, just as a genetic predisposition to alcoholism isn’t a justification of alcoholism. Neither is a potentially universal masculine trait justification for its promotion. But neither can it be ignored nor simply dismissed.
It’s also worth noting, that just because these traits are typical of males does not mean that all men will have all traits. In fact, on the Big Five Personality test, I personally score high in extraversion, agreeableness, and moderately high in neuroticism, all traits typically higher in women. It’s probably fair to say that my personality traits are not characteristically masculine. But that is not to say that I’m less a man or am incapable of bearing the responsibility of manhood.
Where we make our greatest mistake is in assuming that the traits of masculinity are also our goal for being a man. Traits and attributes are very different from goals. As an example, aggression is commonly articulated as a masculine trait, but calling aggression masculine hardly means women are incapable of experiencing it, nor does it mean that a man must possess aggression in order to qualify as a man. To acknowledge it’s typical existence is not to encourage its unrestricted promotion. The attributes are only characteristics typical to men. It is characteristic for men to experience aggression.
You might think about masculine traits as a palate of colors with which an artist can paint. One end of the color spectrum, we will call masculine and the other end feminine. It’s possible for a painting to only utilize colors from one extreme—just as there are men who seem to express every masculine extreme—but most paintings will utilize colors from the entire expression. They will, however, have some form of dominate shade. We could refer to a painting as masculine or feminine because of its dominate color profile. When we do so, we are still only using the terms to describe what already exists on the canvas. The color is its characteristics. Saying the painting is mostly blue and yellow hardly describe Van Gogh’s Starry Night just as listing masculine traits doesn’t adequately describe what we mean when we refer to manhood.
Take the line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as he describes the mixing of elements to produce a man.
“His life was gentle, and the elements So mixed in him that Nature might stand up And say to all the world, ‘This was a man.’”
Masculinity is not the goal, but rather the raw material by which we construct manhood. When we tell someone to be a man—without a clear definition of what being a man is—we inevitably produce a list of typical experiences and expect them to serve as a goal.
To better understand how we use the traits of masculinity, we need a definition of manhood for which we can work that material.
Def. Man: “An adult male person; a grown-up male person.”
Most fundamentally, manhood is a distinction of maturity. Historically, cultures have recognized a right of passage into adulthood by which a boy transitions from his child identity into the identity of a man. That transition is more a calling than a physically definitive change. There are echos of this in Paul’s call for the Corinthians to stand firm and act like men. There are echos in the dying words of David to his son Solomon, “Be strong and prove yourself a man.” Both seem to be calling for a kind of seriousness and the willingness to bear a greater responsibility.
Scientists tell us that the masculine and feminine distinctions which characterize adulthood begin their divergence during puberty. Up until puberty, boys and girls appear more similar in personality traits, size, and physicality, but by age 17 these attributes become more significantly aligned with adult patterns. This is true even across diverse cultures. As our bodies mature, we are expected to mature with them.
In other words, puberty, a biologically different experience for males and females, seems to initiate broader male and female distinctions. As our bodies mature into adulthood, we begin to experience our maleness in new and distinct ways. We are called to work these new attributes and experiences into mature manhood.
As Christians, the maturity for which we aim is largely genderless. Paul’s point that there is now no distinction between men and women is not an overriding of biology but rather a statement of how we are saved. The Spirit is poured out on sons and daughters. We must all humble ourselves, take up crosses, follow Christ, and seek first his kingdom. In the first generations of the church, persecution and death fell on both men and women, and the ways in which the sexes worshiped together was not only perplexing to the broader culture but created questions and challenges even within the church.
But the universality of Christian salvation doesn’t rework the attributes which make us male and female. Baptism and communion don’t modify our DNA. We each aim for Christ but often find ourselves on quite different paths while attempting a shared destination.
The course two ships take in traveling across the Pacific Ocean will depend primarily on the attributes of their vessel. A 100,000 horsepower cargo ship may cut a bee-line, while the single-handed sailor using only the wind. He may sail in the complete opposite direction to catch more favorable trade winds. Their attributes determine the best way to aim for the same destination.
So men and women must take inventory of their own masculine and feminine attributes in learning to follow Christ. This is what it means to be a man, particularly a Christian man. A man learns to understand his own masculine attributes and turn them in the direction of following Christ, maturing in faith. Just as there are typically masculine traits and experiences, so too, we would expect there to be typical challenges and disciplines associated with becoming a man.
So, some of a man’s attributes, like assertiveness, may make him bold in the face of persecution, while his aggression makes the call to meekness a sanctifying struggle. As the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier put it, “Peace hath higher tests of manhood than battle ever knew.” However, this same man’s wife may find meekness quite natural, while her own agreeableness makes the conflict of persecution a challenge. Both seek maturity—one through femininity, the other through masculinity.
Interestingly, the psychoanalysts believed that the second half of life involved integrating one’s opposite attributes. Men come to understand better and integrate femininity, not to become less masculine, but to become more whole. After all, Christ once described himself as a mother hen longing to gather her chicks, and that came only two chapters after he had turned over tables in the temple.
But Is There A Uniquely Male Responsibility
There is so much more we could explore about the Biblical calling to manhood. I’ve hardly touched on discussions of marriage roles, leadership, or the distinctive male/female curse articulated in Genesis three. But I have tried to lay a foundation for what I think is the most basic presupposition, ones which will inform my articles to come.
- 1. Maleness is a biologically created fact
- 2. Masculinity is the accumulated raw material and diverse experience of being male
- 3. Manhood is a calling to mature those attributes into Christ-likeness
Maybe the most basic way to present this idea is that manhood is a calling—a responsibility. You are asked to be a man—asked by your creator. Manhood is not a list of skills. It is not a list of personality traits. It is not mere biological possession. To be a man is to take on a responsibility of maturity. To be a man is to learn to answer the call of responsibility. Men bear responsibility.
But a call to responsibility is a challenge to our culture. Responsibility implies authority. Without authority who are we responsible to. To bear responsibility is to be given that task by a greater authority than ourselves. The realization of that authority means that the chief definition of man is not something I get to decide.
Too many men live with no authority, no father, and no God. Their world is a gray windless horizon, moved only by their own unchecked passions. Without authority, they are responsible to no one but the lowest of their masculine impulses. They have channeled those forces for no good beyond self-pleasure. Nothing is expected of them, and they bear no responsibility.
What is missing from our cultural redefining of masculinity is a sense of authority. Without the call of God, without an image of his created goodness, who’s to say what a man should or shouldn’t be. But divinely called responsibility invites us into something far more. We must aim for more than being merely male.
A man is an artist, a gardener, like his most ancient father, the first man. His hands in the dirt of his own broken masculinity, working all his advantages and disadvantages, his skills and his sinful tendencies into selflessness, sacrifice, and faithfulness to his heavenly father. He does that work by painful toil, but he does it with hope and through faith. Faith that Christ goes before him and hope that a new earth is coming and with it a new experience of his masculinity—a day when he can fully feel the manhood he now struggles to bear.
I like how Richard Phillips puts it in his book, The Masculine Mandate:
“Our calling in life really is this simple (although not therefore easy): We are to devote ourselves to working/building and keeping/protecting everything placed into our charge.”
More to Come
But we are left with another question. What are those responsibilities we as men are called to take up? In pursuing Christ, are men given particular responsibilities?
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Chase is the pastor of Bent Oak Church in Springfield, MO and hosts the Pastor Writer Podcast. A native of the Ozark woods, he enjoys being outdoors with his wife and two kids: sailing, playing the mandolin (badly), and quail hunting with his bird dog Millie.
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