Sunday, November 23, 2014

Alastair Roberts on "rescuing Christian mascculinity" and a crisis of masculinity in the modern West, what if the crisis he's looking for is the "disposability" of the male?

Behind all of these things, it seems to me, there lies a deep crisis in contemporary masculinity, which in turn is a symptom of a crisis of contemporary society. Unfortunately, few people have put their finger upon this. The crisis of masculinity is in many respects prompted by economic and political factors, resulting from the combination of several developments: the movement from a production to a service-based economy, the rise of a unisex workforce and society, the triumph of the model of gender neutral companionate marriage between individuals, the movement from labour to consumers, the rise of the ‘pink police state’ (with its aversion to risk and responsibility), the valuation of ‘empowerment’ over the responsible exercise and development of our own power (moving us from a population that responsibly exercises power in self-governance and over against other agencies to one that relates to state and business more as children might do to their parent), the ascent of a therapeutic understanding of human nature, the resistance to and diminishing of the figure and authority of the father, the shrinking of the size and realm of the family, etc.

Well ... okay ... but when Roberts says "few" let's trust he is aware that a few have put their finger on this crisis or something like it.  Roy Baumeister addressed it indirectly by pointing out that one of the essential ways that males contribute to cultures is by way of their disposability.

He put it rather bluntly by saying if half the penises in a generation were lost there would be enough wombs to produce a future generation whereas the same could never be said of the inverse loss.  What Roberts describes seems contingent on two proposals.  The first is to take the essential disposability of males as given and the second is to propose that that the out-sourcing of production in post-industrial Western economies has made what the still-disposable males could be doing something that can be done by others.  The rise of a unisex workforce in itself may well be overstated and less critical to the outsourcing of production. 

The flip side of risk is that you don't just win big, you lose big. 

Christian attempts to recover some kind of masculinity in the West have tended to hinge on risk-taking and contribution as disembodied ideals.  There has been less engagement with the possibility that male disposability is quite possibly the underlying "crisis" of masculinity in the West.

As for alternatives, a healthier kind of clean, manly Christian practice ... this is a virtually ageless concern in each generation.  A century ago one Chaplain Evers was concerned to promote a clean and masculine evangelical faith and he did so, rather literally as well as figuratively, at the trenches of combat in World War I.

Understanding the appeal of Mark Driscoll might be something we could boil down to the sales pitch he gave to men.  The sales pitch was, to put it in distilled terms that would be worthy of Driscoll, legacy.  Join this movement and we'll change the city for Jesus across generations and walks of life.  As it became more and more clear over the last fifteen years that Mark's vision of fixed up masculinity could be described as markulinity, a vision of manhood in which Mark Driscoll kept making himself both the measure and the goal of proper manhood, even people in the "manosphere" began to dismantle Driscoll as yet another guy extolling a vision of manhood that only had room for the alpha male rather than the beta male.  For at least one possible example, see Dalrock.

Long ago, back in the William Wallace II days, Driscoll made a point of yelling at guys.  Per "the men and two stones" part of God's Work, Our Witness, Mark yelled at the guys to shape up and fly right and it ... worked. 

There were maybe 100 to 120 guys at that time. Probably the average age was maybe early twenties, twenty years old. You’re talking college guys. But a lot of those guys, to this very day, they did it, man. They’re running companies. They’re deacons, elders. They’re starting churches. They’ve gotten married. They’re having kids. Their lives are changed and they are still, you know, hands up, chin down, feet forward, getting it done. And it’s just really cool what God did in this place.

The reason it's not possible to believe that Driscoll "repented" or was really sorry that he did the yelling thing is that 11 years after he did it he was crediting God as having done a cool thing that, if you were there, was pretty clearly Mark Driscoll's idea and initiative.  There was real estate to be bought, after all.

Paradoxically Driscoll had to sell men on the idea that they were NOT disposable. Driscoll has said over the years that if you get the young men you get everything, you win the culture?  Why?  Because basically they have the power to become the establishment of tomorrow.  Promise them a legacy and they will probably deliver, or at least try, and then you can figure out what stuff to keep and what stuff to distance. 

There were a whole lot of guys in the leadership culture of Mars Hill over the years who didn't object to much of anything within Mars Hill, why?  Well, let's propose that they never imagined that they, as individuals, were disposable, so they didn't object to the general tenor of things on the ground.  When you feel and think you belong then you're less apt to feel and think that what you belong to may have problems in it. 

Phillip Zimbardo has suggested that the emergence of cults may tell us something about what our society at large fails to provide and the cult of Mars Hill (if it can be described that way) might be a potent case study of how a group gains momentum and identity by proposing itself as a remedy to a specific social problem.  In the case of Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll the proposed problem was a crisis in masculinity but the proposed solution was ... the community and social dynamics of Mars Hill.  This may have worked a little better earlier when the community was far more decentralized in terms of who was able to make what decisions, and that may be why people who had no problems with most of the general theology and ideals of Mars Hill or even Mark Driscoll felt the terrible shift from the halcyon days of a plurality of elders was 2007.

But the problem with that explanation would be that personality cults were clearly in play years before 2007 happened.  Anyone who was single at Mars Hill from 2002-2007 may recall the idiotic courtship fad, which probably only had the traction it had because a majority of unmarried males hoped against all odds they could marry one of the daughters of a popular proponent of courtship.  There was a great deal of heat and little light in discussing courtship and whether the couples held up as the poster couples for the fad even had very ideal courtships was probably moot. 

But the self-enforcing expectations and presentation was so secure that elders would say that even though it was not necessarily defended by either the biblical texts themselves or history, the elders all agreed courtship was a good way to go so that was the deal.  Wenatchee The Hatchet is going to remorselessly suggest that such idiotic lockstep conformity on an issue that didn't matter to church governance for half a decade was like incubating a pattern in which when the elders had a chance to make decisions about things that did matter in governance the lockstep expectation of conformity that would meet dissent and difference with combat or dismissal was already going to be in play.  For those who would wish to explain the history of Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll in terms of a cult and a system of control then it needed the 2002-2007 courtship fad as the beta-testing stage for getting everyone at all levels to buy into the program regardless of objections and then, with that safely settled as a kind of case study, the real moves could be possible.

But that would ascribe a level of shrewdness and competence that seems too generous for anyone in leadership at Mars Hill in light of the 2005 boondoggle purchase of the corporate headquarters. 

Still, if one were going to hammer the 2007 by-laws as a signal event one should consider that that moment did not emerge in a vacuum; the expectation that all the elders be completely in agreement had to develop in some fashion and that cultural expectation was going to moot whatever plurality of elders may have existed even if the 2007 by-laws had been rejected, at least in the long run.

So, getting this back to a crisis of masculinity, a bit.  There are times when the "crisis of masculinity" seems less about masculinity than the economics of the nuclear family.  Wenatchee the Hatchet considers the nuclear family to be a historically and globally aberrant form of family life and one that Christians in the United States should not necessarily endorse as either "biblical" or necessary.  It's not that a nuclear family is necessarily a bad thing but that many of Driscoll's failures could be described as a failure to provide anything other than a Law with no Gospel. 

Driscoll's lectures on manhood tend to founder whenever real world details become necessary.  It's easy to tell guys they need to go get real jobs and not "joe jobs" (but didn't Driscoll's own father, Joe, swing a hammer for a living for years as a union drywaller?).  Mark Driscoll's career has been one that ribbonfarm might describe as one of "conspicuous production", yet the last year's worth of scandal associated with Mark Driscoll has shown us that that conspicuous production may have been the result less of Mark Driscoll's actual intellect and labor and more a result of ... well ... Result Source Inc played a part, but so did help from the Docent Group a few years ago and probably a team of assistants and even maybe ghostwriters.  Mark Driscoll had become a brand and with that brand much of the content credited to his name may have been work-for-hire that was actually done by others.  The production was so conspicuous under Driscoll's name that it could be seen as too much and too good to be true ... which it seems, in the end, it was. 

And one of the key problems of a masculinity reform initiative is that the person making the bid has to be able to live it out, literally or figuratively in the trenches. Thus the old comparison earlier this year between Mark Driscoll and Chaplain Evers. 

Driscoll may well have advised guys to get "real jobs" but the emphasis was on the prestige and financial compensation of the job, whatever it was, as a springboard for getting that wife, making those babies, and moving "upstream" to change culture.  But if Driscoll's career can be described as conspicuous production perhaps his career can also be characterized by succumbing to what someone at ribbonfarm called the artisanal fallacy.

The pull quote for the day would be this:
If the uniqueness in the product mainly makes the producer feel more special and unique, without leading to profitable differentiation, it’s the optional kind, like latte art.

Driscoll sure felt like Real Marriage was a great big important book that could help people but why should someone have bought that book when The Christian Directory by Richard Baxter could be downloaded for free at  It's not a matter of whether someone benefited from reading a Mark Driscoll book, it's a matter of why Mark Driscoll got the idea that there was any reason for him to write the book to begin with.  If Driscoll felt better for having produced the book then, to borrow ribbonfarm's idiom, writing the book was optional, like latte art.

So now here we are, a year later, and all those times Mark Driscoll talked on twitter or instagram or Facebook about his job and put "job" out there in those scare quotes ... well ... it's like there were reasons for that. 

What if the way to truly address a potential crisis in masculinity is not to tell men to not accept the dead-end joe jobs but to find a way to instruct them about how to adapt to the reality of dead-end joe jobs?  Maybe we could rephrase this not as a "redeeming ambition" platform but "godliness with contentment is great gain" platform.  As a former pastor from Mars Hill once explained a thing to me, there was this tendency at Mars Hill to define any potential singles' ministry ONLY in terms of marrying everyone off so there would no longer be a need for a singles' ministry, but that would be bad, because that one-size-fits-all approach couldn't be sustainable.  Yep.

If there's a crisis amongst males and it is connected to disposability then, at least in Baumeister's working understanding of men and masculinity that disposability is a feature and not a bug. 


Anonymous said...


Astute socio-economic observations here. I doubt the MH/Driscollian model for markulinity accounted much for current economic trends, and how that might affect the men so important for MH to reach. Likewise, it is doubtful that they cross-referenced their hermeneutical approach with the variety of socio-economic settings that typified the family during the history of the OT and NT. There is probably a wealth of study available here for those so inclined.

However, Driscoll is hardly the first who has sought to secure the loyalties and latent possibilities of young men. Some have succeeded (e.g. the rise of post WW2 Evangelicalism), some haven't. In our contemporary context I can think of few who could reel men in like Mark and MH... conversely few who could leave so many of them disenchanted. What interests me though, is what was it about the historical, economical, and even geographical/cultural context that gave rise to the ascendency of Driscoll and MH.

Not to denigrate Driscoll's rhetorical skill, but it is not as if he is the only Evangelical in history who can inspire through skill in word smithing.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

RE: crisis of masculinity

The “masculinity crisis” is a minute symptom of something much bigger and you will not fix it by sitting in sweat lodge wearing a loincloth.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

RE: sitting in sweat lodge wearing a loincloth.

"Healing the Father Wound." Fr. Richard Rohr

Mara Reid said...

Very good. As jed said, Astute.

As I'm reading what you wrote about this disposability of the male, all I could think about was the disposability of people who were no longer useful to Driscoll.

chris e said...

Well - I already commented on the other thread, but a few thoughts:

To the extent that a lot of the people talking about a crisis of 'Christian masculinity' need to just get over themselves, there's a place for simply emphasising manhood by virtue of being and moving on.

You can always build movements around appealing to the baser elements of manhood.

The crisis in the family is caused by socio-economic factors that - generally middle class - conservative evangelicals are extremely loath to address. Instead they continue to cling to a model (the nuclear family) which was historically contingent and which is an option for fewer and fewer people.

It's a lot easier and acceptable to critique Rachel Held Evans than Milton Friedman. The so called 'pink-police-state' or 'frozen ovas' don't appear ex nihilo from nowhere, they are the end point of a general set of sociological trends that have piggy backed on top of a certain model of economic development which the church has sold its soul to.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

RE: markulinity

WH wrote:
“As it became more and more clear over the last fifteen years that Mark's vision of fixed up masculinity could be described as markulinity, a vision of manhood in which Mark Driscoll kept making himself both the measure and the goal of proper manhood…”

While it is beyond doubt that MD considers himself the model/prototype (a.k.a brand), an older generation might analyze this in terms of social class consciousness. MD has from the “Street Talk” era (early 90s) been a champion of a blue-collar view of life that has infected his Christology. He bragged about having a father who did construction (dry wall) and growing up in SeaTac which is not really much different from Burien where Grace grew up. Grace’s father came from a farm in Ohio and was I think the youngest of 12 children, my recall is less than perfect on the details. But he was forever talking about farm life. So the MD and GD have something in common here. Mark D’s sanctification of the blue-collar world view is set off against activists of the 1960s cultural revolution. His father’s social group would have been viewed as a “hard hat” flag waving pro-war, everything that was despised by the what MD sneeringly refers to has “hippies.” MD’s gender roles are an extension of a 1950s nuclear family working class prototype. Letting this working class obsession of his bleed into his Christology is an unforgivable exegetical sin. Jesus didn’t have a permanent address, hold down a job, permit his disciples hold down jobs … he was irresponsible, neglected his family, ate other peoples food … told his mother and brothers to get lost …

The world of blue-collar family culture is starkly depicted in family of Isak & Kerttu Krekula, Tore & Hjalmar Krekula[1]. My best friend from college married into a family that was even more of a nightmare than this fictional family. The book is worth reading. It is much deeper than what it appears to be at first. It certainly blows away any glorification of the working class home life.

[1] Until Thy Wrath Be Past
Larsson, ├ůsa, 1966-
(2008- english 2011) Trans. Laurie Thompson (translator of Henning Mankell novels).

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

one of the challenges the neo-Calvinist crowd has not really acknowledged at all is that the last time the median age of first marriage was as high as it's become in the last six years was ... the Great Depression. While some progressives have described marriage as a luxury good and social conservatives push for younger marriage in the United States it would seem that both the left and right are hamstrung by peculiarly late 20th century American assumptions about what a family ought to look like.

Chaplain Evers (previously discussed here at WtH) embodied a vigorous masculine evangelicalism that gained respect in the trenches (literally) back in WWI. For as long as Mark seemed to be willing to be in the trenches in a more figurative way his advocacy for a masculine approach to Christianity could retain some traction. Once he switched to more gated community living outside of Seattle while letting his books be assembled from research help and still trying to keep the blue-collar vibe the cognitive dissonance got so great that even long-time loyalists began to lose confidence.

C. Stirling has pointed out that there's a kind of generational resentment in Driscoll's approach and that seems to have played out in subtle ways since the obvious tipping of the hand in the Mother Jones article in 1998. But to go by the way the Driscolls opted to live since 2012 and by Mark Driscoll's own account in Real Marriage, the goal all along for him was to get as far away from the blue-collar existence he ostensibly celebrated as fast and as thoroughly as he could. John Lennon was a bit more honest when he said in an interview that, basically, selling out was the whole point.