The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes

Written by Nancy R. Pearcey Reviewed By Andrew Spencer

There are some corners of Western Civilization in which maleness is considered toxic in and of itself. The battle over masculinity rages with no end point in sight and with more heat than light generated by the arguments. Responding to this state of affairs, Nancy Pearcey’s The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes takes a wide view of societal trends, carefully examines Scripture, and provides a constructive way forward for the church.

Pearcey serves as professor of apologetics and scholar in residence at Houston Christian University. She was deeply influenced by Francis Schaeffer’s ministry at L’Abri and worked with Chuck Colson on several writing projects and as part of his Prison Fellowship. Those influences are clear through The Toxic War on Masculinity, as is her bent toward thorough research and sharp thinking. The thesis of this book is that Christianity provides a better answer than culture to the meaning of masculinity and that it is our absorption of secular excesses that accounts for many of the failures of manhood within the church.

The book is divided into three uneven parts, with fourteen chapters in total, along with an introduction and an epilogue. In the introduction, Pearcey speaks candidly of the physical and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, noting how his failures to be a godly man in the home pushed her away from God. The first chapter then surveys cultural trends to set up the broader problems Pearcey wishes to address in the book. The stakes are clear from the beginning: toxic behavior by men can distort the gospel, but the culture’s treatment of masculinity can be poisonous too.

Part 1 consists of two chapters in which Pearcey shows that faithful complementarian men tend to reflect some of best aspects of masculinity in their characters and marriages, and that those who are deeply engaged in such settings are statistically the least likely abusers. Additionally, men who regularly attend complementarian, evangelical churches are ironically much closer to the progressive ideal of a compassionate, nurturing masculinity with shared responsibility and mutual respect within marriage. But, by way of contrast, men who are only loosely connected to complementarian congregations are among the worst abusers.

Having established the empirical benefits of a biblical masculinity, in part 2 Pearcey shifts to analyze the trends that have led to both perceived and actual toxicity among men. Some critics of toxic masculinity take aim mainly at recent cultural shifts. In contrast, The Toxic War on Masculinity looks at the broad sweep of Western culture over the past several centuries to get a better view. Pearcey’s survey of the evidence comprises the bulk of the volume, with nine chapters dedicated to this pursuit.

The research Pearcey presents is eye-opening. The stereotype of masculinity has varied significantly over the course history, as has societal approval of maleness and femaleness. Rather than Christianity shaping those trends, Pearcey shows that preaching and didactic literature within the church have tended to follow the oscillations of the broader social ideas about gender. According to her argument, a more balanced masculinity was uprooted as men and women’s economic roles separated during the Industrial Revolution. When the home was the economic and social center of society, men and women (especially husbands and wives) shared many more tasks in common (e.g., daily childrearing). When men left the home to go work in factories, the typical roles of men and women divided, leading to more competition and less cooperation. This, in turn, set in motion waves of social sentiment against men in what appears to be a regular cycle. Currently, the United States is at a distinctly anti-masculinity point in the sine wave. The point, however, is that “[m]any of the traits that today are labeled toxic began to be attributed to men with ever greater frequency after the Industrial Revolution” (p. 88).

In part 3, Pearcey argues the problems among Christians generally occur when men absorb the prevailing secular script. When men model their behavior after Archie Bunker instead of Christ, harm occurs. Masculinity need not be toxic, but machismo, workaholism, and the “dopey dad” motif undermine healthy relationships. Because of their physical power, men can more easily dominate in ways they do not even realize. Pearcey is unequivocable in critiquing abusive behavior. The cure is for men to be more authentically like the one perfect man: humble, self-controlled, caring, and driven to fulfill God’s will in the world. By focusing on the biblical ideal of masculinity many of the negative cultural trends of abuse and oppression can be subverted within the local church. The local church needs to hold Christian men accountable to pursuing a godly form of masculinity that defies cultural trends.

Because of the scope of the book and the interconnections between the chapters, there are some sections that seem a bit repetitive. Given the sensitive nature of some of the arguments, this repetition is likely warranted and Pearcey attempts to minimize it by referring to other chapters as she makes other points. This makes the book more useful as a reference, but may bog some readers down. Additionally, Pearcey’s research does not always satisfy the contemporary empirical demands of the social sciences. For instance, at times she uses sources that have not been academically vetted to support some of her arguments. In some cases, she draws conclusions that may not meet the standards of statistical research. Nevertheless, Pearcey’s arguments are careful and thorough, and so have explanatory power.

Despite the weight of the topic, The Toxic War on Masculinity is a refreshingly positive book. The topic and the title lend themselves to red meat, culture war content. Happily, Pearcey avoids that pitfall. She offers a deliberate, nuanced approach to masculinity that pulls no punches toward either cultural extreme. This book recognizes the real problem and offers a real solution. It is both informative and motivating. This is an accessible book that should be widely read by scholars, pastors, and church members.

Andrew Spencer

Andrew Spencer
The Gospel Coalition
Monroe, Michigan, USA

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