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Against Prosthetic Masculinity

There’s a deep irony with any attempt to lecture on masculinity. Throughout history, “manly men” have been men of relatively few words. Verbosity, on the other hand, has typically been considered effeminate. The leader of men is a man of action. He speaks when he must, but he is often reluctant. Every word matters. It is chosen carefully. The male who always has an answer and goes on and on with his speech loses all gravitas.

Of course, masculine men are fully capable of appreciating sophistication. They can read long books and even poetry, but precisely as objects which impress the imagination. They are not mere vehicles for ideas. Men typically lose patience with criticism and commentary. It is the work itself which is of interest.

These are, of course, generalizations. There are, I’m certain, glaring exceptions. Yet we all know what’s basically true. Men want you to get to the point. They don’t want to merely talk about doing something. They want to do something.

And so too they don’t want to merely talk about being masculine. They want to be masculine. They don’t want a leader who merely talks about being masculine. They want a leader who is masculine.

“Talking about masculinity” has frequently devolved into a boutique. It addresses a real problem, but it very often does so in a way that is self-defeating. This approach ultimately offers people who are not sufficiently “men” a product that will help them become men. But it is precisely a product. It is something that they must add to themselves. It is a supplement, or worse, a prosthetic.

And in the end, this means that a great deal of talking about masculinity is really just an instrumentalizing of masculinity. Instead of actually teaching young males to be men, it is the selling of a product. It is the barbershop named “Gents” which charges $30 for the tapered cut and an extra $12 for the Pomade. It is the scented candle named “Man Cave.” It is a self-refutation.

So does this mean that we stop talking about masculinity? No, not entirely.

We should talk about it a lot less, at least by name. Of course, one should not hold a lecture series called “how to be masculine.” So that would not be a bad takeaway. But my point is not to simply stop talking about masculinity altogether but to stop talking about it only as a concept “out there.” Stop talking about “masculinity” and instead talk about manly action. Talk about work. Talk about duties. Talk about dominion.

Additionally, masculine teachers should teach in such a way that they actually cultivate men. This means that they should create people who take responsibility, who become leaders. They should never be happy to have a circle of sycophants. They should have strong voices and strong personalities around them, and they should see this not as a threat to their own authority but as a complement to it in the service of a larger goal.

Thirdly, teachers of masculinity should give young men work to do. Give them meaningful assignments and actual responsibility. Allow them to fail along the way, as they learn to carry their weight and start producing results.

Before Mark Driscoll flamed out, he had actually garnered a reputation for being a pastor who spoke to young men, took their concerns seriously, affirmed them, and put them in positions of responsibility. It’s hard to remember that this was a part of what his ministry was known for, but there was a time when it was so. And it is why he was viewed as an inspirational figure.

But then things changed. The more Driscoll became known as someone who “talked about masculinity,” the more he also became something of a power guy. He became known for confronting people head on, for giving ultimatums, and for coercion and even deception. Eventually it came to light that he hired a company to buy his book ahead of time in order to create the appearance of success so that the momentum would then create actual success. Instead of letting his message bring in the results, he hired people to bring the results to his message. And before long he lost his position, became known as a tyrant, and fell from a position of leadership and respectability.

Men are inspired by action. They like work. They like responsibility. They like risk. But ultimately, for it to be fruitful, it needs to translate into them being able to take action and production for themselves. It cannot mean that they simply work for the bigger and more authoritative person. When that happens they become bitter and emaciated. They either simply leave or turn against their former mentor. And when the mentor truly has become a self-promoter, he quickly loses manly men from his ranks and even starts to purge them out himself. He sees them as a threat. He wants people who magnify himself. True peers can only be opponents.

Prosthetic masculinity doesn’t create men. But it is entirely capable of decreating them.

The Biblical image of “man” is Adam as he was originally created. This is what the NT writers use when addressing questions of “masculine roles.” They point back to creation ordinances, to the original template in the garden. And fundamental to that picture is work– keeping and tending the garden. Adam is told to cultivate the earth. Yes, he is also told to get married and have children, but not simply as an end in itself but as a means to more creation and more cultivation. As an image of God, man is to make more people. He is to make more makers.

So let us welcome the interest in masculinity, but only on one condition. It has to give us the real thing. Promoting masculinity must promote men. They must surround themselves with them. They must encourage them. They must give them the tools and put them to work. And they must welcome the day when those men do the same for others.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

One reply on “Against Prosthetic Masculinity”

Thanks for writing this piece. You’ve given me good stuff to chew on as a youth pastor.

I’m curious: are there any podcasts/websites/books/etc. that are part of this “interest in masculinity” which you find particularly “boutique”, and others which you find “give us the real thing”?

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