Few subjects are as fraught in the contemporary church as that of Christian masculinity. Despite widespread agreement that there’s something profoundly awry with men in the modern church and world, little consensus exists about what the problems are and perhaps even less about how they ought to be addressed. In articulating a Christian account of masculinity, it would be hard to think of anything as consequential as the underlying stories that frame our approach and the ways we choose to narrate or deploy them.
For most such accounts, two principal stories can be identified: a biblical story and a cultural story. The biblical story is our understanding of the broader scriptural narrative, especially as it pertains to masculinity. The cultural story is our account of our cultural context and moment, our understanding of its dynamics, conflicts, themes, symbols, threats, questions, and trajectories.
Whether we’re believers reading the Scriptures for our personal devotions, pastors preparing to preach sermons to our congregations, or Christian writers seeking to form our readers, our reading of Scripture is always an attempt to hear its voice speaking to us within the resonance chambers of our lives, communities, and cultural contexts. This is a necessary task, yet one fraught with challenges and dangers. Virtually every reader of Scripture comes to its texts with a set of pronounced cultural stories. We have a sense of the things that are wrong with the world, the errors that need to be addressed, the goods that need to be protected, and the questions that need to be answered. We have a sense of the things that are of pressing importance and the things of secondary concern.
While we need to hear the Scriptures speaking to us within our contexts, we can all too easily make our contexts a straitjacket for them. Even when our interpretation of our cultural contexts and moments may be informed by the Bible in various ways, it’s very easy for our reading of the Scriptures to become subservient to or even conflated with our more immediate cultural concerns and stories. Coming to the Scriptures with the pressing concerns, questions, and frameworks of our immediate contexts, we can force the Scriptures into an alien mold. Rather than putting our own questions, concerns, and expectations to one side and listening attentively and receptively to the Bible’s own voice, we may merely be listening for whatever within it answers the concerns that most animate us. Approached in such a manner, we’ll make it very difficult for ourselves to be surprised by the Scriptures, to hear the complex character of its witness, or to perceive the balance of its teaching.
The Men We Need: God's Purpose for the Manly Man, the Avid Indoorsman, or Any Man Willing to Show Up
The world needs real men, real bad. And there are all sorts of conflicting ideas and messages about what a “real man” is (and is not). Is a real man one who hunts, loves sports, grills meat, fixes cars, and climbs mountains? Sure, sometimes. But that’s not really the point of being a man and it’s not the purpose for which men were made.
Into our cultural confusion, Brant Hansen paints a refreshingly specific, compelling picture of what men are made to be: “Keepers of the Garden.” Protectors and defenders. He calls for men of all interests and backgrounds (including “avid indoorsmen” like himself) to be ambitious about the right things and to see themselves as defenders of the vulnerable, with whatever resources they have.
Two recent books illustrate the way that different cultural stories can lead to divergent understandings of masculinity and readings of Scripture. Reading Michael Foster and Dominic Bnonn Tennant’s It’s Good to Be A Man: A Handbook for Godly Masculinity and Brant Hansen’s The Men We Need: God’s Purpose for the Manly Man, the Avid Indoorsman, or Any Man Willing to Show Up alongside each other is an instructive lesson in the importance of carefully considering, deploying, and declaring our underlying stories.
In Praise of the Patriarchy
Foster and Tennant’s first chapter opens with the sentence “Patriarchy is inevitable.” Their account of Christian masculinity focuses on the fact that men were made to lead humanity’s vocation of dominion out into the wider world. Manliness, grounded in sexually dimorphic human nature, is chiefly oriented toward the performance of the mission of dominion and foregrounds vigorous, firm, and weighty agency.
Contemporary society and Christianity, in Foster and Tennant’s account, are both hostile to the natural realities of masculinity, pathologizing, suppressing, and misdirecting male drives. Men’s God-given virility is regarded more as a problem to be solved than as a good thing to be celebrated and cultivated. Men are offered ethical visions that leave them stunted, frustrated, self-alienated, or palliated by hollow pleasures. In a betrayal of the integral union of manly traits and ethical excellence that the etymology of the term “virtue” implies, modern visions of the “good” man are seldom of someone who is very good at being a man.
Foster (the pastor of East River Church in Batavia, Ohio) and Tennant (a freelance copywriter and web designer in New Zealand) are concerned with reintegrating virility into our ethical visions for men: impotent goodness is a pale imitation of what goodness should be! Their ideal man has heightened and honed agency and gravitas, exhibits the “triad of masculine virtues” (wisdom, workmanship, and strength), and effectively images God’s own fatherly authority to others. Healthy masculinity should be pursued through mission, with the formation provided by fathers, and within contexts of deep fraternity.
While they’re far from uncritical of many of its iterations, Foster and Tennant clearly have areas of affinity with the broader “manosphere,” evident in their “red-pilled” account of a feminized, fatherless, and man-hating society and in the accent they place on physical strength, patriarchal authority, and brotherhood.
Women in a Man’s World
One of the things that will likely be most striking to any reader of It’s Good To Be A Man is the place they give to women. Their account of masculinity is focused on mission and, as they put it, “since a wife is a complement to your mission, she cannot be the mission itself” (211, emphasis original). Men must prioritize pursuing excellence in their mission, seeking a woman to follow their lead and help them in their mission. A wife is a “strength-magnifier” who can glorify and perfect the mission her husband initiates.
While Foster and Tennant do touch on perverse forms of masculinity at many points, they seem to be most animated when speaking of “toxic femininity” (75), of the “harlotry” of female immodesty (78), of the “loud woman” (79), and of things such as the “whispernets of nosy biddies” who undermine male leadership through their sinful demands for niceness when sin needs to be confronted and through their false accusations (94). While male sins are routinely challenged from pulpits, Foster and Tennant argue, female sins are typically ignored or downplayed.
The authors’ emphasis on manly virtues and agency often seems to come at the direct expense of women. “All leadership,” they claim, “is exclusively male” (3), yet the fifth commandment requires the honoring of mothers and implies their authority alongside fathers. Of wisdom they say, “Though both men and women ought to seek wisdom, women are instructed to seek it from men” (145). Yet Wisdom itself is personified as a woman in Scripture, and the young man’s quest for wisdom is characterized as a quest for a wise woman to be his counterpart and counselor, a quest for which he’s equipped by heeding the voice of his mother.
Usefulness is supposedly “a uniquely masculine quality,” a claim they elaborate on with what they refer to as the “simplistic” assertion that “women see men as success objects; men see women as sex objects” (147). While Foster and Tennant do extol the excellency of virtuous women and don’t speak with the misogynistic venom or harsh cynicism of many manosphere writers, the vision of women that emerges from their work is a lamentably stunted one.
Keepers of the Garden
Despite some points of commonality, there’s a pronounced contrast between Foster and Tennant’s approach and that of Brant Hansen. Hansen—an author, radio host, and advocate for healing children with correctable disabilities through CURE International—presents a vision of men as “keepers of the garden” (17).
He emphasizes the importance of men being responsible protectors and providers whose calling is primarily ordered toward the weak and vulnerable. Men are to be committed, engaged, and active providers of security to their wives, families, and communities. Through a strong, healthy presence, men have the power to set the tone in their homes and societies, giving a sense of security, peace, joy, and love to those around them.
Hansen’s book is structured around six decisions he encourages men to make: (1) forsake the fake and relish the real, (2) protect the vulnerable, (3) be ambitious about the right things, (4) make women and children feel safe, not threatened, (5) choose today who you will become tomorrow, and (6) take responsibility for your own spiritual life.
This book is a salutary summons to men to be active, present, responsible, and self-controlled, to recognize their power to make a difference in the lives of others, and to not squander themselves and their talents in empty pursuits. While Hansen shares an emphasis on self-exertion with Foster and Tennant, he has a lot more to say about self-mastery and is much more alert to the ambivalence of fleshly virility. There’s no shortage of helpful practical wisdom in its pages.
Hansen’s book is a salutary summons to men to be active, present, responsible, and self-controlled, to recognize their power to make a difference in the lives of others, and to not squander themselves and their talents in empty pursuits.
After reading Foster and Tennant’s book, I confess that there was much I found refreshing about Hansen’s approach. In his attention to vulnerability and the widespread abuses of male strength, he is sensitive to immensely destructive and perverse facets of what culturally normalized masculinity all too often represents. For instance, while Hansen’s vision of fatherhood could justifiably be accused of being overprotective, the abuses to which it leaves itself open are much less troubling than those of Foster and Tennant’s idealized “dangerous” father who “imposes order” with his “fearful power” (108).
Hansen’s vision of masculinity seems to have been formed largely in reaction to his childhood experience of a frightening and abusive father (101–2). Profoundly aware of the damage cruel men can do, he emphasizes protection of and loving ministry to the vulnerable as central to his vision of the masculine task.
For Whom Is This Vision of Masculinity?
Hansen, however, has remarkably little to say about the bonds between men. In his account, masculinity seems to be proven almost entirely in relationships with women and children. Foster and Tennant, by contrast, are self-consciously addressing, appealing to, and advocating for an audience of alienated, disaffected, and fatherless young men (“clueless bastards”) attracted to the various brotherhoods of the “Absaloms” of the contemporary manosphere (14). And doing so with common idioms in the manosphere (“beta males,” “white knighting,” and “red pills” are all mentioned in this book).
While Hansen is acutely alert to the damage that men can do to the vulnerable, Foster and Tennant feel keenly the damage that has been done to young men, abandoned by their fathers, starved of true brotherhood, their virility routinely pathologized and stifled by a feminized society, or palliated by the consumption of hollow and deceitful simulacra. While both books are written to men, they often appear to be written for the sake of different parties: Foster and Tennant’s for the sake of alienated young men and Hansen’s for the sake of women and children.
This difference in posture is very much in evidence of the way that the books handle issues of women’s sin, for instance. Justifiably concerned to resist the sort of blame-shifting men can engage in to excuse their lustful thoughts, Hansen insists that a woman wearing a revealing dress is “not at fault at all” for a man’s decision to fantasize about her (42).
On the one hand, Hansen is correct to call out the blame-shifting and to recognize how essential it is for men to take responsibility for our own actions. “Modesty codes,” for instance can run the risk of so emphasizing women’s responsibility to be “pure” in their outward appearance that the lustful male gaze can communicate some taint of guilt when it’s directed toward them. On the other hand, Foster and Tennant are on strong biblical grounds when they condemn the predatory character of the seductress, recognizing the sinfulness of inciting others to sin and our culture’s toleration and even celebration of such incitement. Nevertheless, both Foster and Tennant’s underlying sympathy and advocacy for young men and Hansen’s concern for the vulnerable make them very partial guides in such matters, greatly overplaying the responsibility of one party and downplaying that of another.
Different Cultural Stories
I began this review by discussing the significance of differing underlying stories for our masculinity discourse. Both Hansen and Foster and Tennant are writing against the foils of real evils that loom especially large in their consciousness.
Animating much of Foster and Tennant’s work is an account of the femininization of society and the church and of the pathologizing of masculinity. In contrast to a lot of Christian works on masculinity, they’re not trying to articulate an idealized and sanitized vision of masculinity to appeal to a mixed audience, but rather to speak directly into the experience of men who feel frustrated, aggrieved, and alienated within society. Rather than merely telling such men to get their act together, they acknowledge how society is unjust and inhospitable to them. The pressing need is for men to recover a sense of the goodness of masculinity and to pursue an unapologetic manliness in the face of its many cultural enemies.
By contrast, for Hansen, the most salient cultural story seems to be one of waylaid, disengaged, and pathological masculinity. He is especially sensitive, likely in large measure because of his childhood experiences, to the commonality of men’s abuse and neglect of the vulnerable. He positively references the 2019 Gillette “Is this the best a man can get?” advertisement, a fairly effective Rorschach test for contemporary visions of masculinity. While Foster and Tennant’s title, It’s Good to Be A Man, presents manliness as a positive thing and worthy of pursuit, Hansen’s title, The Men We Need, foregrounds the “we” of society, chiefly focused on the vulnerable, as that which sets the criteria of appropriate manliness.
Dangers on Both Sides
One could read each book as a reaction against some of the dangerous tendencies of the other’s vision. The emphasis on male agency and mission that Foster and Tennant exhibit has so often come at the expense of women and has involved the denigration and marginalization of the weak and vulnerable.
Likewise, a vision of masculinity narrowly drawn around taking responsibility for protection and service of the vulnerable has often been perverted into a vision where responsibility chiefly takes the form of blame—where men’s natural virility has been so pathologized on account of the power it grants them that they, in pursuit of supposed virtue, become stifled and self-loathing. What are the “men that we need”? Perhaps a society like ours “needs” tame men, stripped of strong male solidarity, who function well in a world largely neutralized of gender. To such people as Foster and Tennant, visions like Hansen’s might be seen to risk reducing men to the deferent enforcers of a more feminized order, chiefly responsible to empower women and to police other men. Such men might be more adapted and agreeable to contemporary society, but they might also be stunted in key aspects of their masculinity.
Our societies are far from homogeneous, yet we often can speak of them as if they were. Our eyes settle on certain social developments, dynamics, or realities that seem especially salient or important to us, while failing to reckon with others that might register far more strongly with other people and groups and resisting any that cannot readily be assimilated into those accounts of society in which we are most invested. We want straightforward narratives, so we can discount much of the complexity and variegation of society.
Foster and Tennant see the alienated young man in a feminized culture that stifles him, while Hansen sees the abused or marginalized woman in a culture that is ordered around privileged men. Both are seeing something real and widespread, yet they fail to see other aspects of the picture. Both of their stories are partial—incomplete and one-sided—and need to be handled as such. We must learn to speak well to many such stories without playing them off against each other, addressing concerns on both sides within a more just, humane, and hospitable settlement for both men and women.
What Does ‘Responsibility’ Mean?
Hansen accents men’s responsibility towards the vulnerable, yet there are important facets of male responsibility that seem to be entailed by his approach that he nonetheless leaves largely unexplored. The man’s responsibility doesn’t merely result from blameworthy actions that affect others, nor merely from a greater capacity for action that requires a correspondingly greater sense of duty, but is principally grounded in God’s authorization and establishment of the man as his primary representative and appointed guardian. One might see a sort of complementarianism (unwittingly?) implied in Hansen’s claims: it is the man who is specifically given this responsibility of guarding the garden and the woman is more subject to his guardianship than she is commissioned as an equal guardian alongside him. While other forms of responsibility follow from this—Adam’s primary accountability for the fall, for instance—so does the woman’s duty of according honor and being submissive to the man, and the fact that exercise of certain forms of authority chiefly or even exclusively belongs to men in various contexts (in the guarding of families, churches, and societies more broadly). Hansen’s account of responsibility notably neglects such dimensions.
Different Readings of the Biblical Story
Both of the accounts of masculinity seek grounding in the fundamental scriptural vision of Genesis 1–3. Hansen’s orienting reference is Genesis 2:15, where the Lord placed the man in the garden to serve and to guard it. Foster and Tennant have a firmer grasp of the broader picture of Genesis 1–3. For instance, they recognize that the man’s commission precedes the creation of the woman and so cannot be narrowly ordered toward or around her. The man is not created for the woman, as Hansen’s approach might imply, but the woman is, as the apostle Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 11:9, created for the man. Indeed, there are times when, as the appointed guardian, the man might need to guard the divinely established order against women and other parties who are threatening it from within the garden.
Further, while the man has an initial task in the garden, he’s created for the task of subduing the wider world. Hansen’s neglect of this fact likely colors his vision of fatherly duty: when men are narrowly characterized as protectors, their responsibility to lead their children out into effective agency within the world can easily be underplayed.
When we consider the man’s commission to master the untamed world, the immense significance of male strength, collaboration, and brotherhood also becomes apparent. True masculinity must be forged in large measure in such contexts where women are largely absent. Even though it’s important to observe the honor, kindness, and concern with which Jesus treated women, we shouldn’t forget that his was chiefly an outward-oriented mission to perform his Father’s business, accompanied by a band of brothers who left their families behind to follow him. Like many such predominantly male missions, even while being for the benefit of men and women alike, its performance is such that the manner of men and women’s participation within it often sharply differs, the different strengths and vocational foci of the two sexes being accentuated. If you don’t begin with the biblical story on its own terms, such facts can easily be obscured, especially when our concern is narrowly to demonstrate that Jesus valued and affirmed women (which he clearly did). We may only notice what we’re looking for.
In contrast to many pagan visions of masculinity that are beloved in the manosphere, Christian masculinity must seek its glory, not in its self-assertion, but in the loving and humble service and elevation of others.
Scripture, however, also presents women as man’s divinely given counterpart in the human vocation, as the glory of the man, and as the perfecter of his work. While Foster and Tennant openly affirm these things, I fear the truth of them has only unevenly leavened their broader vision. In contrast to many pagan visions of masculinity that are beloved in the manosphere, Christian masculinity must seek its glory, not in its self-assertion, but in the loving and humble service of the Lord and the elevation of others. In recognizing the goodness of the creational order, where men lead humanity in the task of dominion, we must never divorce it from a clear grasp of the ends toward which that dominion must be exercised.
Hansen’s vision of men as the guardians of the vulnerable might easily lead to men nominally occupying a position of “leadership,” yet with their legitimacy practically subject to the judgment of women, based on how much they feel served and empowered by it. In such a model, male responsibility can become divorced from honor and become more a matter of minimization of blame. Such a model of masculinity is also easily “feminized,” subjected to feminine norms, expectations, and demands. Foster and Tennant’s emphasis on the creational goodness of manliness is much needed.
On the other hand, their unapologetic patriarchal vision is in great danger of encouraging the lording it over others that Christ condemns. Likewise, there’s a sort of “masculinization” of society that could be seen as the alternative error to “feminization,” where masculinity is so elevated and centralized that femininity is denigrated and marginalized. Against some of their better intentions, I fear that Foster and Tennant frequently fall prey to a sort of identity politics for men. Handled responsibly, Scripture can’t underwrite such a vision.
Hansen’s vision of the protection of the vulnerable is an important corrective. Likewise, the centrality of the child in Christ’s portrayal of his kingdom must caution anyone who, in supposed manly self-assertion, would chafe at the yoke of our gentle and lowly Savior.
There are few truths more important for a healthy understanding of masculinity than knowing we’re not our own masters—our masculinity must be controlled by and subjected to Christ’s rule. Indeed, the humbling of masculinity is a theme running throughout Scripture. The sign of circumcision is a powerful physical manifestation of this: self-assertive manhood must be “pruned” if it is to bear covenant meaning. The true honor of rule only really belongs to those who have the meek heart of a servant. Ultimately, while this service must be expressed in large measure in loving concern for women, the weak, and the vulnerable, it is rendered to the Lord and greatly exceeds the task of protection alone.
The true honor of rule only really belongs to those who have the meek heart of a servant.
Manliness is good, as is God’s intention that men lead in the human task of dominion, and these truths need to be defended in our day. Nevertheless, this goodness will only truly be experienced where men are subject to Christ’s dominion. Outside of such submission, manliness can become a great focal point of the sinful flesh, and it has driven some of humanity’s greatest expressions of evil. Those who are good at being “manly” are often bad men.
Bearing faithful witness to Christian teaching about men requires firm and broad grounding in and articulation of the story of Scripture, and wariness of the crosswinds of cultural agendas and battles. The biblical vision can incorporate our most immediate cultural concerns, whether those may be protection of the vulnerable, affirmation of the goodness of manliness, or something else, while still exhibiting a breadth that’s missing from the proliferating partial accounts of our day.