The Male Malaise
Why Confusion About Masculinity is Causing Too Many Men to Disengage and Check Out
Last week I got my hair cut. My barbershop has been feverishly adding locations and rebranding itself in an attempt to monopolize the cutting of all men’s hair within a 50-mile radius. As their website puts it, they are just “your traditional neighborhood barbershop and the future of men’s grooming.”
The nostalgia of your grandpa’s vintage aftershave, now with a whole new line of male hair care products, complete with old-fashion lather shaves, mounted taxidermy, white subway tile, and antique chainsaws hung on the wall. My grandpa used to pay five bucks for a cut; for this new man-space, I now pay twenty-two.
It’s the kind of place you expect to see beards, but sitting in the chair, I realized that nearly every single person in the room had one. To be fair, I do too. Mine has been mostly a long-term attempt to avoid the daily ritual of shaving, and I keep it pretty short, but the beards at my barbershop were something more. Long, full beards, being scissor cut and shampooed. A few of them were remarkable, but no man comfortably remarks about another man’s beard, at least nothing more than “nice beard.”
Apparently, the rule is, “beards are manly, but talking about beards is decidedly not.” They are supposed to seem like some badge of months spent tracking through Himalayan mountains or tarpon fishing in remote parts of South America. Hemingway never talked about what beard conditioner he used, I have a hard time imagining Ulysess S. Grant oiling his beard on the Appomattox battlefield, and even in a barbershop which offers “beard grooming services,” the conversations stayed on script: baseball, BBQ, and recent superhero movies.
I kept expecting a British accent to start whispering from the corner, “Here we have a prime example of the male species demonstrating masculinity. Notice the way they signal their masculine confidence through the strutting presentation of their facial plumage. And here we see the alpha, his majestic beard, and Cross-Fit t-shirt mark his dominance to the rest of the herd.” Okay, maybe I have gone too far, but us men can be a perplexing gender. Obsessed with “being a man,” and not quite sure what that means at the same time
Do you remember in Genesis when Jacob attempted to pass himself off as his older brother Esau? He wrapped goat hide around his arms, an attempt to convince his aged and blind father that he was his hairier older brother. I’ve always thought there was something archetypal about the Bible’s depiction of these two brothers and their father. Esau, the meat-eating, burly hunter, was so driven by raw desire that appeasing the growl of his stomach was more motivating than the responsibility of his birthrights. And Jacob, manipulated and prodded by his jealous mother’s favoritism, was a sad and pathetic image of masculinity, faking body hair to steal from his undiscerning father. One brother couldn’t care less about the father’s attention while the other was so desperate for it he would pretend to be the other.
It’s all there: the disengaged father, the insecure man, the masculine compensation, and a family of men profoundly incapable of understanding one another or saying anything more complex than “Let me have some of that red stew!” Competition, father wounds, resentment, disengagement, and isolation.
The Messed-Up Men of the Bible
The Bible has far more to say about the complexity of men than is often acknowledged. Rightfully, we have given attention to the Bible’s depictions of men abusing power, the repercussions of their unchecked passions, and their frequent subjugation of women and weaker men. It’s easy to track the consequences of these violent and nihilistic forms of masculinity. Interestingly though, the Bible doesn’t shy away from showing us the devastation such men leave in their wake.
But the Bible also offers a much more nuanced depiction of men and their plight. It presents a deeper struggle to understand what a man is. This lust for power and blood is only a single distortion of the larger male question? It may account for men like Nimrod or Samson, but it fails to represent men like Jacob, Gideon, or Timothy. They are all broken but in more than stereotypical ways.
Something about the goodness of the garden’s male and female has been deeply marred by sin, degrading our genders into awkward attempts to regain something we can’t quite identify but know is lost. The Bible presents men who struggle to understand what it means to be a man. How do we find our way back into the garden, past the flaming sword and the angelic guard, to what being a man once was and ultimately is? This missing masculinity is spread all across the bible.
Read more closely. Adam, who once penned love poetry for his wife, ended up blaming her in an awkward attempt to justify himself before God. The first brothers, Cain and Able fell into a resentful competition that ended in the first spilling of human blood. Noah preserved the human race by his righteousness and then got wasted and exposed himself to his kids. Abraham passively participated in his wife’s scheme to produce a son through their slave. Saul sat helplessly under a pomegranate tree as the Philistines invaded. David murdered to cover up his sins and then wrecked his family by his inability to engage the complicated lives of his own children—lives which replayed many of his own sins. The disciples kept dozing off as Jesus sweat drops of blood. And while the women faced the danger of preparing Jesus body at the tomb, the men hid afraid behind locked doors. It’s to these women God granted the first news of Christ’s resurrection.
That list could be much longer, but it’s enough to demonstrate that men have been struggling for quite some time. Not with achievement. We’ve always mistaken masculinity as a kind of achievement—action over being. We imagine we can make ourselves men. And we get plenty done, through virtue and vice. We have conquered the world, built civilizations, mapped the globe, and explored the universe, yet most of us live with a deep sense of inner confusion. We don’t know who we are supposed to be, not as men, and each day, our missing masculinity is becoming only more apparent.
The question is now being asked more openly, and the recent string of mass shootings has propelled the conversation onto the pages of nearly every news organization. The single thread which connects all of the recent violence is not weapons, religion, or the political ideologies of its perpetrators. What unites all of these events is that they have all been perpetrated by men—particularly young men.
As the Florida Senator, Rick Scott put it, “There is something wrong with our young men in this country, and we are going to have to figure it out.” The problem is no doubt complex. Like most complex problems, there is no single legislative solution. The challenges men face mostly likely have no political solution at all, and depending on our politicians to sort it out is asking far too much. There is something deeply broken in the souls of men, and we are finding ourselves incapable of even talking about the problem.
This will be the first in a series of articles on the topic and my hope is to begin by diagnosing the problem. As our culture struggles to understand what masculinity is or should be, more men are disengaging from the question and its responsibilities. The consequences are significant.
Disengaging from Society
Let’s start with social and religious disengagement. Adult men report having fewer friends than any other demographic. The Boston Globe recently suggested that the greatest threat to middle-aged men is no longer smoking or obesity, but now loneliness. And this social isolation is a predictable feature in the profiles of men who commit mass shootings and acts of violence. David Brooks observed in his book, The Second Mountain:
“These mass killings are about many things – guns, demagoguery, and the rest – but they are also about social isolation and the spreading derangement of the American mind. Whenever there’s a shooting, there’s always a lonely man who fell through the cracks of society, who lived a life of solitary disappointment and who one day decided to try to make a blood-drenched leap from insignificance to infamy.”
Historically, religious communities have provided their members with these social networks, yet it’s long been documented that men are participating less in churches and religion. According to the Pew Research Center, in the United States, women are 8% more likely to attend a weekly religious service, 10% more likely to practice in daily prayer, and 13% more likely to acknowledge the importance of religion in their lives. As opinion columnist, Ross Douthat expressed in the New York times:
“Male absence and female energy has also been the story, albeit less starkly and dramatically, of Christian practice in many times and places since. Today, most Christian churches and denominations in America — conservative as well as liberal, male-led and female-led both — have some sort of gender gap, sometimes modest but often stark. Despite their varying theologies, evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, Mormonism and Catholicism all have about a 55-45 female-male split in religious identification; for black churches, it’s 60-40.”
Disengaging from Fatherhood
It’s not just from friendships and religion that men are checking out. Statistics suggest that 1 in 4 children are growing up in a fatherless home. That’s 19.7 million children without an actively involved dad. This fatherlessness is creating a cycle of problems for each new generation of men, as they struggle to be fathers having grown up without one themselves. As the National Fatherhood Initiative put it, “There is a father factor in nearly all social ills facing America today.” Fatherlessness has been linked to a greater risk of poverty, a higher likelihood of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, incarceration, and a higher likelihood of committing violent crimes.
President Obama recognized the crisis in his 2008 Father’s Day address, explaining :
“Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives … family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation…. But if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that too many fathers are missing — missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.
Disengaging from Intimacy
In late 2018, several news agencies reported on recent studies indicating that millennials are having significantly less sex than previous generations. While the number of Americans who now believe that sex between unmarried adults is “not wrong at all” has continued to increase, millennials seem to be acting out those views less frequently. There have been positive results. In a study from 1991 to 2017, The Centers for Disease Control reports that teen intercourse has dropped from 54 to 40 percent. Teen pregnancy rates have fallen dramatically. Many sociologists have been perplexed by the contradictory views and actions of millennials. Sex has never been freer and yet it has never been practiced less.
Many sociologists and commentators have suggested that we are just beginning to experience the impact of the pervasive consumption of online pornography. A Barna study found that two-thirds (64%) of U.S. men view pornography at least monthly and between the ages of 18 and 30 that number is eight in ten (79%).
In a 2018 edition of the Atlantic, titled, The Sex Recession, Kate Julian explained:
“Today, masturbation is even more common, and fears about its effects—now paired with concerns about digital porn’s ubiquity—are being raised anew by a strange assortment of people, including the psychologist Philip Zimbardo… In his book Man, Interrupted, Zimbardo, warns that “procrasturbation”—his unfortunate portmanteau for procrastination via masturbation—may be leading young men to fail academically, socially, and sexually.”
The Atlantic also reports that in a study conducted from 1992 to 2014, the number of men who reported masturbating weekly more than doubled. Men seem to be avoiding the complexity and vulnerability of actual relationships in favor of digital sexual consumption. The consequences are deeper isolation, more disengagement, and ongoing relational distortions.
Disengaging from Advancement
Over the past few decades, men continue to show signs of academic disengagement, a remarkable turn, considering that just a generation ago, women were massively underrepresented in higher education. In 1947 women accounted for 12.2% of college enrollment. Today they account for 60%. But it’s not just more women attending, fewer men are. Today there are 2.2 million more women in college than men. Men are more likely to drop out of school. This disengagement of men in education is playing out in the workplace as well. As reported by the New York Times in 2018, in 1950, 4% of men within the age range of 25-54 were not working or looking for work. Today that number is 11%. The New York Times labeled it the “Vanishing Male Worker.”
More than twice as many adults age 25 to 34 are still living at home compared to the late 1960s. That number represents 11.5% of all women within the age range and 18.3% of all men. Online forums like 4chan and 8chan, have produced entire subcultures of disengaged men. They have developed self-identifying terms like “neets” (not in education or employment) and “incels” (involuntary celibates). Under the protection of anonymous online aliases, these communities champion being “alone together” on the internet. It was to these forums that the recent El Passo shooter was a member and posted his manifesto prior to the event. Slate has noted that he was the third mass shooter to post a manifesto within the forum.
Disengaging from Life
Having disengaged from social networks, education, relationships, and work, it’s even more sobering to consider statistics on male suicide and violence. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “In 2017, men died by suicide 3.54x more often than women.” White men accounted for 69.67% of all suicide deaths. Death by suicide continues to be the 10th leading cause of death in the US. The Los Angeles Times called the current rate of teen suicide a “high-water mark” and has pointed out that it is being driven by a “sharp rise in suicides among older teenage boys.” Men are also more likely to be the victim of a homicide and also the perpetrators of it. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that 92.9% of inmates are males. That’s 164,323 men to 12,570 women. Even our nations current opioid crisis is being led by men. Men are more than twice as likely to die from an opioid overdose. On average, men start using drugs at an earlier age, and men are statistically more likely to abuse alcohol and tobacco.
Confused About Being a Man
What are we to make of the ways so many men are disengaging from traditional expectations and responsibilities? Psychologist Helen Smith has labeled the problem, “men on strike.” She argues, in her book by that title, that men are doing the rational thing, responding to our culture’s lack of incentives for male engagement. As she has written, “Our society tells men they are worthless perverts who reek of male privilege… you reap what you sow.” Smith is convinced that male disengagement is a consequence of men receiving mixed messages and unclear expectations from culture.
Men are presented with a tangled and confused representation of masculinity. Take the Superbowl as an example. It is the most-watched television event of the year. Even men completely uninterested in football find themselves participating. We celebrate the traditionally masculine virtues of aggression, competition, and physicality. We love hard hits, spectacular plays, and the commercials. Typically they range from women in bikinis selling cheeseburgers to seductively interrupted scenes which tell you to go online to watch more. Then we were given Gillette’s “toxic masculinity” commercial in which men were told that everything they had previously learned about masculinity was out-of-date, that is until the commercial ended and we were back to football. That a major consumer brand would attempt to lead our national discussion on masculinity is a testament to our lack of proper dialogue. We need something far more than marketing to solve this challenge.
It’s not hard to find other ways our culture is confusing men, particularly young ones. In 2014, The Atlantic published a fascinating piece on Dads in sitcoms. As the article puts it, “On TV if there is a dad in the home, he is an idiot. It must have reflected our own discomfort with dads being competent… You put a dad in front of his kid, and the dad gives the worst advice. You put a dad in front of a toaster, and he burns the house down.” But it’s not as simple presenting men as fools. The definition of masculinity itself is up for grabs.
Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association published their first-ever guidelines for practice with men and boys. Their guidelines are based on offering solutions to many of the trends we’ve already outlined. The APA acknowledges in the report, “Something is amiss for men,” but they went on to describe the problem as steaming from traditional understandings of masculinity. As the report explains, “The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful. Men socialized in this way are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors.”
David French, in commenting on the APA’s guidelines for the National Review wrote:
“It is interesting that in a world that otherwise teaches boys and girls to “be yourself,” that rule often applies to everyone but the “traditional” male who has traditional male impulses and characteristics. Then, they’re a problem. Then, they’re often deemed toxic. Combine this reality with a new economy that doesn’t naturally favor physical strength and physical courage to the same extent, and it’s easy to see how men struggle.”
French is not nostalgic about masculinity. He rightfully points out in his article that past virtues came with plenty of vices. But guidelines like the APA’s do little to offer men a definition of what masculinity should be. They discard the tools and hand back an empty toolbox.
C. S. Lewis, writing on his culture’s attack on traditional values, explained:
“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
How About the Church’s Contribution?
And how has the church responded? I’m afraid the church has failed to do much better than contribute more confusion. While attending Bible College, we often attended men’s and women’s chapels. There was never any question about the topics that would be covered. While the women would be encouraged in their value, worth, and beauty us men would listen to yet another talk on pornography and lust. A friend once commented, “they are princesses, and we’re perverts.”
Pastors find themselves caught in awkward attempts to reach men, some going as far as pyrotechnics, cursing, and free beer. There are calls for more “macho” pastors driven by macho descriptions of Jesus and his ministry. At the same time, we are attempting to come to terms with the devastation many men have wrecked on congregations. The Me Too movement is forcing us to reconsider our own concepts of “Christian masculinity.” As Campaign, a marketing and communications media group, put it, “Millennial men feel pressure to ‘be it all’ in ‘Me Too’ era.” They explain, “When it comes to masculinity, researchers found that 65 percent believe the most important job of a good man is providing for his family financially. Meanwhile, 92 percent of men and women surveyed chose Barbecuing as the “most masculine” activity for modern men.”
I think the survey captures well the complex absurdity we’ve attempted to define masculinity by—financial success and knowledge of grill briquets.
The surprising discovery through all of this messy process is that most men don’t have any clue what a man actually is. Just ask them. I have, and most of us struggle to offer any definition we feel confident about, and we sure don’t know what it means to be a Christian man. What makes a man? Are there characteristics unique to masculinity? Does the Bible offer a unique form of Christian masculinity? Get a man, to be honest, and even the most macho will often admit, we’re mostly faking it, not quite sure what “it” even is.
The Male Malaise
I would like to call this the male malaise. Malaise is a French word meaning ill-ease. It is a deep sense of uneasiness, a feeling that something is wrong but an uncertainty in diagnosing it. It is this malaise that is allowing so many to simply disengage. To abandon the complexity altogether.
Without a mark to aim at, men have retreated into late-night video games, pornography, and forum rants of bitterness and resentment. It’s not hard to see how such men are easily caught up in fantasies, destructive ideologies, and in the most extreme cases, radicalization.
We discover that it is not the strong man who is most dangerous but the weak one who’s desperation to reaffirm his power without any good definition of how power is properly used leads him not into masculinity but into a shallow characterization of it. Cain murders out of resentment and Jacob wrecks his own family out of insecurity.
I think the novelist Walker Percy captures this malaise best in his 1961 novel, The Moviegoer. The book tells the story of a young man struggling with the trauma of his Korean War experience and navigating the collapse of southern tradition in postwar New Orleans. Struggling to establish purpose or relationships, he finds himself living vicariously through movies. He articulates this male malaise better than anything I could write.
“Men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.”
Something is deeply wrong with your young men, and so much depends on us figuring it out. In the following posts, I want to explore some of the ways the church might better engage the masculinity crisis and reach many lost in the confusion.
Disengaging from Society
Disengaging from Fatherhood
Disengagement from Life
Confused About Being A Man
How About The Church’s Contribution
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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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