Toxic was the Oxford English Dictionaries word of the year in 2018. A rapid increase in its use in public conversations, around politics, but especially around gender and ‘toxic masculinity’ in the #metoo movement, saw a massive spike in dictionary look ups. If you were to look up the Oxford definition it’s:
‘the dumping of toxic waste’
‘alcohol is toxic to the ovaries’
1.1 Relating to or caused by poison.
‘toxic liver injury’
1.2 Very bad, unpleasant, or harmful.
‘a toxic relationship’
There’s been all sorts of blow-back against the idea that masculinity in various, traditional, forms might be lumped under this banner of ‘toxicity’, especially amongst people suspicious that the current wave of feminism, in its identification of the systemic application of a certain sort of masculinity as ‘the patriarchy’, is seeking to deconstruct and disempower all masculinity. Now, there’s a thing where people who are on the political left tend to see things in systemic ways (like privilege and the patriarchy), and so they do ask individuals to consider how they might benefit from systems they don’t necessarily see or acknowledge the benefits they receive as a result, they do also tend to want to deconstruct systems and institutions defined as oppressive. Those on the right tend to see things more in individual terms and so when big systemic claims are made they get applied and weighed up against ‘my own individual experience, character, and decisions for which I am directly responsible.’ This means those on the right who are not embodying those abusive characteristics that are labeled ‘toxic’ but also don’t see life predominantly in systemic terms feel like they are being, unjustly, asked to give up certain rights and responsibilities, power, even, that limits their individual freedom or sovereignty. The whole Jordan Peterson phenomenon has emerged because those people who see masculinity in certain forms, especially in the use of power to bring ‘order’ and even in the creation of institutions and systems, being the source of much that is good. It’s impossible to speak across this divide so long as we are unable to recognise that we are simultaneous individuals and relational; that we exists as selves and in communities or systems of selves, and that once certain sorts of selves wield power and construct systems to their own advantage, even individuals who don’t participate in creating such systems, do benefit from them in ways that people outside that individual experience see but that we may not see, or may feel powerless to change, and so instead we take responsibility for our own individual action in the world. I read this piece against ‘toxic’ as descriptor of masculinity yesterday, I didn’t love it.
“The failure of current culture to define the term “toxic masculinity” (as mentioned in the recent Gillette ad) is a serious problem. Does it mean a subset of masculinity is toxic? Or, does it mean masculinity itself is toxic?
If masculinity itself is toxic (as some people claim is the point of the recent American Psychological Association guidelines) there is no motivation for men to change anything about themselves. “I was born this way!” they might retort. In that case (according to Leftist logic) perhaps men deserve toleration, acceptance and accommodation in the same way sexual minorities have recently been championed by the general culture. There are more women, so men arethe sexual minority after all.
If toxic masculinity is only an undesirable kind of masculinity, then we need to ask: what does good masculinity look like? But so far our culture’s answer seems to be: it looks like femininity, which is not very inspiring for most men.”
Again, this perception, or feeling, is real and we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it. It does, again, explain the popularity of Jordan Peterson and his appeals to hard-wired natural norms to suggest that masculine traits (whether you’re a male or female) are a pathway to a good and flourishing individual life, and then to a better society.
We Christians, whether left or right leaning (or centrist), have a unique contribution to make to public conversations about gender, and about what is good for humans systemically and individually. In discussions generated by my last post, where I suggested I had no issue with using the word ‘toxic’ to qualify ‘masculinity’, I was asked if I’d be equally happy to talk about ‘toxic femininity’. The answer is yes. But I also want to make the case that the Bible has a particular account for ‘toxic masculinity’ of the sort emerging in the #metoo discussion that means we can embrace the label and participate in the discussion… and we can go even further in our understanding of toxicity and what it does in systems and in individual lives.
There are plenty of Christians out there who want to redeem a certain form of (not Spiritually redeemed) masculinity as natural and good (especially those of us who believe there are divinely created ‘ideals’ of masculinity and femininity that work in cooperation with each other) and there are many of us who seem keen to jump on this bandwagon, much like on Peterson’s, without thinking critically about how much natural constructs of manhood and womanhood are tainted by sin and curse, and so toxic — incompatible with human life.
What’s not impossible is for those of us who call ourselves Christians to have our own account of masculinity and femininity, and the appropriateness of using ‘toxic’ as an adjective to describe either.
Especially those of us who see the Bible as an authoritative account of what it means to be human, what is good for humanity, why the world is like it is, and how it might be improved. If we do not speak about toxic masculinity, or femininity, or humanity — and look critically at the effect of sin on our individual and collective lives and norms — how can we speak of a redeemed humanity (we must, at the same time, consider how nature might be oriented towards its telos, where we might see God’s good and beautiful design amidst the wreckage wrought by our poisonous sin)? If we can’t recognise sin playing out in the real world in detrimental ways we’d have to start asking how real an account of humanity we have to offer.
When it comes to the toxicity of natural-to-us relationships between men and women, the Bible provides an account for the destructive nature of a ‘toxic’ default, a description of how that default plays out in individual relationships that are toxic, and some reasonable evidence that this toxicity is systemic. It also suggests a toxic femininity, in that our relationships are corrupted from God’s good co-operative design and purpose in two directions. This pattern of relating from Genesis 3 becomes the norm for male-female relationships through the rest of the Old Testament, it is not a new ‘good pattern’ extending Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, but an inversion or corruption of the ideal.
“To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” — Genesis 3:16
Genesis 3, an account of why the human heart is the way it is, and human cultures and societies are the way they are, suggests that there’s a new toxic pattern of relationships for both males and females — toxic masculinity and toxic femininity. The outworking of sin and the curse is gendered (or, rather, sexed), because men and women are different in ways that play out differently in the physical world. Men are typically bigger and stronger (which is part of how we get a patriarchy when our cultures are built around physical dominance or the amassing of power). There is a ‘toxic masculinity’ here that maps pretty exactly on to the sort of toxic masculinity identified in the Gillette ad.
King David is sometimes held up as an ideal masculine figure (though I suspect if some people grappled with his emotional life and his harp playing he might be ‘too effeminate’ — he even kills Goliath with an improvised and surprising weapon from a distance; hardly a (normal) warrior’s approach. But when David has power and opportunity he ‘rules over’ Bathsheba (and Uriah) in what seems to me to be the literal embodiment of #metoo’s description of toxic masculinity. David knows he needs redemption so I don’t think it’s uncharitable or unfair to point this out. The systemic nature of this toxicity is evident in how his sons treat women; one amasses them like trophies (Solomon), one sexually assaults his sister (Amnon), the other publicly assaults his father’s wives in a brutal power game on the same rooftop that David was on when he claimed Bathsheba (Absalom). Toxic masculinity is intergenerational. It is systemic.
When the Apostle Paul writes about the cultural effect of sin becoming our new ‘natural’ in Romans 1, we see how the collective decision to replace God with created things has widespread (plural) consequences for people; sin is structural and effects what we see as ‘normal’ or natural. Sin is toxic; so is the ‘curse’ — the punishment — and the result is death.
All unredeemed humanity expresses itself in toxic ways. Sin poisons us; as individuals and in the systems, cultures, norms, and institutions we build so that we are poisonous to one another. Here’s what Paul says a bit later in Romans:
“As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.””— Romans 3:10-18
If people are recognising and calling this out — the way our collective behaviour brings ruin and misery to others — we have two choices — we can embrace the diagnosis and point to the solution, or we can cut Genesis 3 from our Bible and try to find some good, common, created masculinity to uphold for the ‘good’ of all. The problem with the Gillette ad isn’t the diagnosis, it’s the solution (and though he comes from the other direction, I’ve argued elsewhere that this is the same with Jordan Peterson). It offers an incomplete solution that doesn’t escape the heart problem; it aims at mitigating the symptoms not dealing with the heart. It’s a form of palliative care for this condition that is incompatible with human life.
Our human norms were poisoned by sin — and so our patterns for relating as men and women became toxic. Deadly. Even as the toxicity of sin kills us by pulling us further away from God. But our human norms are redeemed, purified, and renovated in Jesus.Here’s the curse-reversing, toxicity-purifying, relationship changing solution offered by the Bible. Find new humanity in Jesus — by following him as king. The Bible says this involves a change of our nature — we receive God’s spirit (which is a bit mysterious) — but as a result we have a new template for relationships that isn’t just a return to what we were created for as men and women, but is a picture of a future world where there is no curse.
There is no healthy masculinity or femininity that is not crucified and raised with Jesus. No human pattern or norm not connected to the divine by God’s Spirit that is ‘good’ or true or worth anything. Jesus doesn’t just deal with the symptoms brought about by sin and our toxicity, he provides a new pattern for a new way of life together as people; as males and females (for eg Romans 8, Ephesians 5, Philippians 2); a new model for non-cursed, non-toxic, cooperation in the world, that creates new life-giving systems as we use power and strength for the other, not for our own gratification or advancement. Here’s a picture, from the Bible, of a different sort of masculinity (and a different sort of femininity). Toxicity is anything that departs from this pattern.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus — Philippians 2:1-5
Note that the last bit sounds a lot like the solution offered by the Gillette ad, but the first bit — being united with Christ, and sharing in the Spirit, is what changes our hearts so we ‘have the same love’ and are ‘one in spirit and of one mind’…
Patterns of masculinity or femininity that are not crucified — or cross shaped — are the same patterns that led humanity to nail Jesus to the cross, and that lead us to destroy each other as we seek to be tyrant kings and queens of our own little empires. Jordan Peterson’s natural masculinity won’t save us from that, nor will #metoo, but all these conversations about the sorts of masculinity and femininity that might lead to human flourishing are opportunities for us Christians to engage, from our own account of humanity and its ills, and to point people to the source of life and love and restored relationships with God and one another.