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Newsletter #69: The Vocation of Masculinity
The question of the vocation of masculinity is not what it is but whether or not it exists.
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Two or three years ago someone asked me to write an article on the vocation of masculinity for a themed issue of a magazine devoted to vocation. It didn’t make it into the issue, and I lost track of it. Since it’s still as relevant as ever, I decided to use it for this month’s newsletter. Enjoy.
The Vocation of Masculinity
Today’s question of the vocation of masculinity is not what it is but whether or not it exists. Although the Bible and human history assume a distinction between the sexes, often a radical one, industrial society and today’s new gender ideologies have very different visions. Though neither consistent with each other nor often formally articulated, these visions agree in explicitly rejecting both that historic gender distinctions are fundamentally real and also that they are moral. This puts the future of masculine vocation in grave doubt – so long as resources remain abundant.
Starting with Genesis, the Bible sets up an essential gender polarity. “Male and female He created them.” (Gen 1:27). Much of the Protestant debate about gender centers on hierarchy. That is, there is significant debate about such items whether or not men are the head of the home or only men can hold office in the church. Less attention is given to the profound gender polarity found throughout scripture.
Among many examples, God explicitly dictates the gender of various animals that are to be sacrificed. For example, the sacrifices involved in the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 are male. The purification ritual in Numbers 19 calls for a red heifer (female). An analysis of the specifics of these is beyond the scope of this essay; the important point is that gender is a matter of specific concern for God, right down to the specific sex of the animal to be sacrificed. The Bible even makes statements that today might be viewed as stereotyping, such as when it says, “In that day the Egyptians will become like women, and they will tremble and be in dread.” (Isaiah 19:16) Beyond the numerous explicit references to gender in the Bible, there’s much that is implicit as well. For example, Paul’s second letter to Timothy is arguably at one level a primer on masculinity sent to encourage a young leader in trouble who had historically under-functioned as a man.
Human societies have also exhibited pervasive gender polarity. Gender distinction was so fundamental that Jean-Louis de Lolme’s quip about British parliamentary supremacy was that “parliament can do everything but make a woman a man and a man a woman.” And as radical Catholic priest Ivan Illich noted in his book Gender, “Outside industrial societies, unisex work is the rare exception, if it exists at all. Few things can be done by women and also by men. The latter, as a rule, just cannot do women’s work. In early eighteenth-century Paris, you could recognize the bachelor from afar by his stench and gloomy looks. From notaries’ records, we know that solitary men left no sheets or shirts when they died. In the time of Louis XIV, a man without a woman to keep house could barely survive.” He also observes, “Hundreds of contracts between peasants and their lords from the ninth to the twelfth centuries tell us what rents were: partly produce and partly servitude. And traditional rent was frequently paid in a gender-specific way. A large number of contracts carefully determined not only the amount of rent due for the land but also the gender from whom it was due.”
Illich sees the elimination of gender distinctions as a precondition of the development of modern industrial society. This is a questionable assertion, but undoubtedly we’ve seen gender distinctions weaken as the industrial era reached maturity, which, in its present phase, now depends on those weakened distinctions.
Though pre-industrial societies may have discriminated against women by today’s standards, Illich points out that modern society is frequently no better. “I know of no industrial society where women are the economic equals of men. Of everything that economics measures, women get less.” What’s more, modern industrial society creates the new category of shadow work, uncompensated labor that must be performed in order to service the industrial economy. Commuting is shadow work, as is “some assembly required.” Shadow work, argues Illich, is fundamentally different from the household labor of the pre-industrial family. Shadow work is a mark of our dependence on the industrial marketplace for our very survival in a world where the poor but self-sufficient life of pre-industrial society has been foreclosed to us. And shadow work falls much more heavily on women than men.
The landscape of modern industrial society is thus foreign to that of the Bible and pre-industrial human history. Preindustrial men didn’t have to ask about the vocation of masculinity. It simply was. While we don’t live in a truly androgynous world, gendered distinctions have continued breaking down, and have, as previously noted, been ideologically delegitimized. For example, not only does our society reject the idea of men’s work or women’s work, but also finds the very concept of such a thing offensive.
The church today spends most of its time and effort in applying the teachings of the Bible to modern society, generally trying to find a way to do so with the least amount of discomfort and disruption. This is useful at some level because, after all, we are stuck here. But less frequently does the church use Bible and church history to fundamentally critique our modern industrial world, much less suggest, as Illich did, that it is an enormity. Whatever quibbles people might have about industrial modernity, very few of us, Christian or not, would countenance any fundamental restructuring. Overall we quite like it here. So not only have we made peace with industrial life, but with its attenuated conception of gender as well. This means we’ve alienated ourselves from the world of the Bible and at some level from the created order as well.
To understand the vocation of masculinity in this environment requires something of a history or anthropology expedition. That’s exactly what SUNY Stony Brook anthropologist David D. Gilmore did in his 1990 book Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity. Early on he notes that “sex dualisms and oppositions are definitely out of fashion,” but he doesn’t let that stop his investigations.
Gilmore examined a number of cultures from around the world, primitive and modern, to seek out their concepts of masculinity. While he did not find a universally agreed upon view of manhood, he did find three consistent recurring elements.
1. Reproductive, that is sexual, success.
2. Provisioning for family, but also for the broader community or tribe.
3. Protection of one’s honor, family or tribe - often at any cost.
Gilmore says, “To be a man in most of the societies we have looked at, one must impregnate women, protect dependents from danger, and provision kith and kin.”
This vision of masculinity is performative. A man must earn his masculine status through success in these dimensions, often through competition, and in public view. In this he is expected to be autonomous, dynamic, energetic, courageous, and risk taking to the point of expendability. This was the calling of every man, and those who failed in it were held as deficient.
A man’s success as a man was also not just to be personal, but related to the good of his family and community. For example, the “big man” of the New Guinea Highlands created community cohesion through his leadership and even through his acquisition of material wealth. Gilmore says, “The mark of a big man is that he is a large-scale net producer…To capture big man status, he may accumulate food and goods, but only to distribute them later in ceremonies and feasts.” And this applies far beyond the Pacific Islands. He writes, “One of my findings here is that manhood ideologies always include a criterion of selfless generosity, even to the point of sacrifice. Again and again we find that ‘real’ men are those who give more than they take; they serve others. Real men are generous, even to a fault.”
It’s useful to compare these traits to modern conceptions of gender. Autonomy, dynamism, energy, courage, and risk taking (if not expendability) are all attributes that feminism would likewise claim for women, thus denying them to any specifically masculine vocation. The same goes for traditional roles of protection (e.g., military combat positions), and personal provisioning (having a career). And both women and men today see reproduction as a choice not a calling, and are content that each other see it that way. Having children is a lifestyle choice today, not a necessity. Declining birth rates and below-replacement fertility suggest it is one that’s falling out of fashion.
The item that most clearly stands out as a spot of contention today is surplus provisioning. This is the belief that a man must provide not just for himself, but to over-produce in order to help provide for his family and broader community as well. Feminism treats female surplus provisioning in the form of traditional nurturing activities as one of the key burdens women need to be liberated from. It treats with deep hostility the idea of women providing for or doing things for others without compensation, even in some cases going so far as to complain about “uncompensated emotional labor.” Contemporary women would reject a statement such as “‘real women’ are generous, even to a fault” modeled after Gilmore’s description of men.
Men for their part are likewise increasingly rejecting the role of surplus provider. This is part of the “NEET” (people not in employment, education, or training) phenomenon of prime working age men not doing anything productive, men attending college at rates far below women, and men avoiding marriage. Some Internet subcultures make this into an ideology. Manosphere writer Aaron Clarey argues for living parasitically off a collapsing society rather than being a sucker by investing in it. His book is called Enjoy the Decline. The Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) movement explicitly repudiates marriage, in large part because of the risk of being forced into becoming an involuntary provider for a woman via divorce and child support. Pickup artists seek sexual success unbundled from the rest of the masculine package.
Like women, men today are rejecting old conceptions of masculinity in favor of consumerism and self-oriented focus. They are, mostly implicitly, rejecting a definition of masculine vocation that includes generating surplus provisioning for the benefit of a family or community. Cushions such as our modern social safety net and sexual mores that provide opportunities for even many losers to have sex, and for those who can’t to console themselves with weapons grade pornography, facilitate this choice.
Unlike with the changed modern view of procreation, this change is not being well received. While women’s rejection of traditional unpaid nurturing roles has been largely embraced by society, men’s rejection of the producer and provider role is seen as a problem, even a just cause for anger. “Where have all the good men gone?” is a common refrain among women today frustrated by trying to find a good prospect for marriage. The “problem” of unmotivated men has launched thousands of “Man Up!” ministries in the church, mostly with only frustrated pastors to show for it.
In a society that denies them the traditional status of manhood but still expects them to exhibit its sacrificial aspects, men are, as psychologist Helen Smith put it in the title of her book, going on strike.
This seems unlikely to change in the near term. Gilmore notes that gender differentiation is weaker in societies where resources are abundant, such as ours. And he concludes that, “The degree to which women contribute directly to the food quest in any given society seems to correlate [inversely] with the degree to which manhood is emphasized.” In our society where women are often outpacing men in careers, trying to expect sacrificial behavior out of men and only men might be a fruitless task. Gender seems likely to continue being weakly differentiated or even to fragment.
But we know from history that good times don’t last forever. If at some point our advanced civilization will enters a decline phase in which resources become much more scarce and costly, that’s when we should look for a vocation of masculinity, in a new but familiar form, to make a comeback.
Be Killing Your Sin or Your Sin Will Be Killing You
That’s is probably the most famous line from John Owen’s 1656 Puritan classic Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. It’s a book widely recommended by a who’s who of pastors including Tim Keller and John Piper. But its archaic English is very difficult to read. It’s not quite Shakespeare, but that’s a good comparison. This makes it all but unreadable to most people.
To make this work more widely accessible, I created a very good modern English adaptation and translation of it. I’m pleased to say that sales have continued growing and it now has over 100 very positive reviews on Amazon. If you are a Protestant, you should pick up a copy today in paperback, kindle, or epub format. It’s great for personal use or small group discussion. I even know someone who bought copies for his whole church!
As one reviewer recently put it, “An excellent choice for personal growth. I only wish I had this powerful tool much sooner in my walk with the Lord. Perfect for group study.”
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I was stunned: How could Dustin transform so suddenly from nightclub player to rabbinical student—especially now that I needed him most? “So what made you give up women?” I asked. “When you can get any girl you want, every guy—even if he’s rich or famous—looks at you in a different way because you have something he doesn’t,” he said. “But after a while, I’d bring girls home, and I didn’t want to have sex with them anymore. I just wanted to talk. So we’d talk all night and bond on a very deep level, and then I’d walk them to the subway in the morning. That’s when I started to leave it behind. I realized that I got my entire validation from women. Women became like gods to me, but false gods. So I went to find the real God.” - Neil Strauss, The Game