Of all the commentary about Gillette’s recent video essay on toxic masculinity/razor advertisement the one that left me scratching my head the hardest was this piece posted on Desiring God. Now, I’m not unbiased. I’ve long grown weary of John Piper and his troupe of culture warriors. As I’ve packed my books into boxes for an upcoming (temporary) house move, Piper’s books haven’t been going in the keep, giveaway, or sell piles. I find the vibe of Piper and his merry men’s take on manhood and womanhood hard to take (toxic even). But this piece lacks the nuance Piper brings to his own cultural analysis. And that’s saying something.
I didn’t write about the piece at the time because to write about things like this is to give them oxygen, and clicks.
And look, off the bat, I’ll say that the way adjectives work is to qualify nouns, so I have no problem with ‘toxic masculinity’ describing a certain sort of masculinity in the same way that ‘poisonous water’ tells me not to drink water that will be bad for my health and ‘ridiculous article’ describes the both the first of this now two part series, and its follow up. As a result, I’m more likely to be drawn to the Gillette ad than the Desiring God ‘think piece’ (and I use that adjective not to describe actual intellect, but to describe a certain sort of genre of blog post, and I use ‘blog’ there to differentiate a written article from a piece of wood in the ground, because this is how language works and that is important to understand). Here are some of the more head scratching moments from the original post.
Too often we swing from decrying chauvinism and abuse to producing a society of plastic forks, nonfat lattes, and men who don’t mind going to church because of the free babysitting. When our children look at men today — the kind in television shows, homes, and the classroom — what do they see? What is this masculinity of tomorrow we are all concerned with?
I don’t know if it’s ironic that the guy gets on a soapbox about pendulum swings and over-correcting and then creates, ex nihilo a set of weird, extreme, measures to determine whether or not the man in your life is not quite man enough.
“Just having returned from a visit to “the greatest place on earth,” my wife and I were shocked at how many men boldly acted like women. Lispy sentences, light gestures, soft mannerisms, and flamboyant jokes were everywhere to be seen — on display for a park flooded with children. No hiding it. No shame. No apologizing. This perversion of masculinity warranted no commercials.”
Yes. We must certainly never let a real man make flamboyant jokes. Especially not in parks where they might accidentally groom children with a Gillette razor and no apology. What’s even more bizarre is that while creating this rod, and using it to measure someone’s manhood, or, er, masculinity, the author returns to his rod in the follow up. But there’s a couple of other points that merit some deeper critique. One, the author supplies a series of ‘dragon killing’ non-passive examples of masculine manhood from the Bible, lionising David for his ‘manly’ courage (and ignoring that when he didn’t go to war he decided to send armed men to ‘take’ Bathsheba so he could sleep with her… which has absolutely disastrous results for the next generation of his family, especially his sons). That sort of ‘morality tale’ thing is not how Bible characters work, they’re much more complicated and three dimensional than black and white caricatures allow… if it was one might make the following observation from Genesis 25, where we meet two brothers of whom God later says “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated” — ask yourself which of these brothers embodies a more ‘Desiring God’ style masculinity?
“ The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” — Genesis 25:27-30
Jacob, at home, smooth skinned (thanks Gillette) cooking with mum… or Esau the hairy meat-eating hunter…
Now, there were many other awful things about the first Desiring God piece (the bit in the heading, that brought in some double entendre to compare Gillette’s ad about personal grooming with the way adults prepare children for abuse was, I thought, beyond the pale); but it seems the worst of all the bad things is that the editorial team at Desiring God believed it worthy of a sequel, and not the sort of sequel that brings clarity, it’s simply a double down. It’s a piece that assumes not just the doubtful the exegetical bona fides of the first, but it also quotes, and argues from the authority of the first piece and its ‘rules of the faith’ in order to make even more ridiculous qualifications — while also acknowledging that gender norms (the things we describe as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are culturally constructed. Anybody who dares question his adroitly observed and official list of effeminate qualities is on #teamSatan.
“But as it pertains to today, Satan whispers confusions into modern ears. If one should give such traits to effeminacy as “lispy sentences, light gestures, soft mannerisms, and flamboyant jokes,” Satan immediately suggests a handful of men who, not having these qualities in the aggregate, have one individually. He lisps, but he isn’t effeminate; he just has a gap in his teeth. He has a softer demeanor, but he isn’t effeminate; he just is introverted and weak in tone. Instead of simply concluding (rightly) that such people aren’t effeminate, we conclude that these traits don’t really characterize effeminacy. We deny the existence of forests by examining each tree individually.”
But effeminacy stands as an obvious forest to all honest men and women. The deception became clear to a friend recently when, after he nitpicked each individual trait, I asked plainly, “So you are saying that you cannot tell when a man lives an effeminate lifestyle?” Of course he could.”
Of course. Then he argues for these ‘tells’ being culturally constructed.
“God also gives us a culture to live in, which assigns masculine and feminine to certain amoral things like speech, objects, and behavior. American culture associates pink with women, as it does dresses (contra Scottish culture and William Wallace’s kilt), and expects heterosexual men not to walk down the street holding hands with another man (as heterosexual men often do in other cultures).”
So if it’s about how a culture understands things like speech, objects, and behaviour — what is wrong with a culture redefining the symbolism of different colours, items of clothing, or styles of speech? How does this work in an increasingly multi-cultural world where not only are people from different ethnic backgrounds and nations coming together in public places, but sub-cultures exist that interpret different symbols differently? Perhaps his rod isn’t a great measuring stick at all?
There is half a point buried in the dross about what happens when we moderns de-couple our personhood from a sense of ‘givenness’ — including of our biology — where there are things that are essentially and physically true about who we are that come from a creator and define us externally. Without our personhood being given to us we’re left constructing an identity and wondering what, if anything, is ‘essential’ and out of reach of our imagination. This is one of the reasons why identity, built on personal autonomous choice, is a thin concept — but you won’t find that analysis (or acknowledgment of complexity) in the Desiring God pieces. The closest we get is:
“Sex, in this modern chaos, means little more than body parts. Males happen to have male genitalia — but that need not lock them into expressing their sexuality in any particular way. They can “marry” either a man or a woman, and even decide to keep their male members or not. Fluidity is one of Satan’s new favorite words. In this view, man, enthroned as his own maker, chooses who he (or she or they or “ze”) will become.”
Perhaps, really, this is just a Centre for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood piece on the perils of egalitarian theology masquerading as biting cultural commentary.
All around us, mountains of God’s glory carved into the landscape of his world are eroding. Homosexuality and egalitarianism flatten distinctions between husbands and wives. Androgyny and effeminacy flatten vital sex expressions between men and women. But God made us distinctly male and female, and gave Eve to Adam (not vice versa), because he already conspired in his eternal plan to give the church to his Son. Our distinct manhood and womanhood, our marriages, and our human nature itself guide us to properly reflect the most precious reality in the universe: God’s glory shining forth in the good news of his Son.
Look, this last sentence is absolutely true. The telos of heterosexual marriage and sex is the heavenly marriage between Christ and his bride, the church. But, I’d humbly suggest two things. First, the author of these pieces should grapple with a masculinity that also allows us blokes to be united, in the church as the bride (which is presumably feminine, right?). Which, along with a little humility around the area of cultural construction of ‘norms,’ makes space for slightly more nuance than black and white proclamations of ‘shoulds’ and ‘Satans’… Second, the author might like to consider how people, both as individuals and cultures, might be more complicated than his biting cultural analysis and wit allows, and how his ‘norms’ might ‘flatten distinctions’ between men or women who are different to other men or women… He might work a little harder to not impose a one size fits all rod on different people, not just because some men have high pitched voices or a gap between their teeth that creates a lisp, but because biology, itself, isn’t as straightforward as he’d like it to be… which isn’t to say that there aren’t essential, rather than constructed biological realities, but rather that those essential realities are less polarisingly binary than he might think (or argue).
What’s interesting in this particular cultural moment is that there are, in the complexities, fascinating opportunities to paint a different and compelling picture for how different experiences and physical realities can be accommodated in loving union — not through an open slather approach to marriage, but in the body, or bride, of Christ. Instead of rod-beating calls to arms, we Christians might engage in careful listening to, and observation of, the stories being lived out by our neighbours. We might notice fracture lines appearing within modern coalitions of interest, around competing accounts of identity, and stand by with compassion, a better story, and more radical inclusion of difference. We might read a piece like this recent article by gay, conservative, blogger Andrew Sullivan and ask if his utopian vision might be best satisfied in union with Christ, and inclusion in the church — in a way that helps people order their lives, and loves, around his love (rather than around rod-whacking, line-drawing, and graceless posturing). Sullivan identifies a trend within the trans- movement (as opposed to the trans- experience) that seeks to eradicate biological sex (something essential) as a factor in one’s personhood, in favour of gender (something constructed). He, like Desiring God, is trying to articulate what is contested about masculinity and femininity in this cultural moment. He says, of a piece of legislation in America that is seeking to replace biological sex with a broadened category of ‘gender identity’ which includes “gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms, or characteristics, regardless of the individual’s designated sex at birth…” this redefinition has the same issues as the Desiring God insistence that gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms, and characteristics are essential to personhood and the performance of our particular sex/identity. Sullivan points out that this view is a regressive move that reduces us humans to stereotypes awaiting normalisation and classification:
“It implies that a tomboy who loves sports is not a girl interested in stereotypically boyish things, but possibly a boy trapped in a female body. And a boy with a penchant for Barbies and Kens is possibly a trans girl — because, according to stereotypes, he’s behaving as a girl would. So instead of enlarging our understanding of gender expression — and allowing maximal freedom and variety within both sexes — the concept of “gender identity” actually narrows it, in more traditional and even regressive ways. What does “gender-related mannerisms” mean, if not stereotypes?
Sullivan is worried that this will ultimately mean a gay identity — built on attraction to physical realities about another person, rather than simply ‘gender expression’ — will be flattened out into a ‘trans’ identity (because their attraction is about something more nebulous and quasi-spiritual than about the relationship between sex and gender being held together in a particular person). He says:
“This is the deeply confusing and incoherent aspect of the entire debate. If you abandon biology in the matter of sex and gender altogether, you may help trans people live fuller, less conflicted lives; but you also undermine the very meaning of homosexuality. If you follow the current ideology of gender as entirely fluid, you actually subvert and undermine core arguments in defense of gay rights…
Transgender people pose no threat to us, and the vast majority of gay men and lesbians wholeheartedly support protections for transgender people. But transgenderist ideology — including postmodern conceptions of sex and gender — is indeed a threat to homosexuality, because it is a threat to biological sex as a concept.”
Then he says:
“There is a solution to this knotted paradox. We can treat different things differently. We can accept that the homosexual experience and the transgender experience are very different, and cannot be easily conflated. We can center the debate not on “gender identity” which insists on no difference between the trans and the cis, the male and the female, and instead focus on the very real experience of “gender dysphoria,” which deserves treatment and support and total acceptance for the individuals involved. We can respect the right of certain people to be identified as the gender they believe they are, and to remove any discrimination against them, while also seeing biology as a difference that requires a distinction. We can believe in nature and the immense complexity of the human mind and sexuality. We can see a way to accommodate everyone to the extent possible, without denying biological reality. Equality need not mean sameness.
We just have to abandon the faddish notion that sex is socially constructed or entirely in the brain, that sex and gender are unconnected, that biology is irrelevant, and that there is something called an LGBTQ identity, when, in fact, the acronym contains extreme internal tensions and even outright contradictions. And we can allow this conversation to unfold civilly, with nuance and care, in order to maximize human dignity without erasing human difference.
Let me just pull out a little bit of that pull quote so that you can mull over how much it is actually arguing for something Desiring God both says it wants when it comes to the difference between men and women, while also trying to eradicate difference under the subsets ‘male’ and ‘female’…
“We can see a way to accommodate everyone to the extent possible, without denying biological reality. Equality need not mean sameness.”
What if that vision for freedom and accommodation and acknowledgment of biological reality actually comes from a church upholding the givenness of our personhood, and the discovery of our purpose according to that givenness, rather than the cultural norms around us? What if we discover that personhood in Jesus? What if this happens not in a way that insists we conform to norms, or ‘sameness,’ but that acknowledges that our persons find their purpose not in expressive individualism, but in reflecting the glory of God as his image bearers, in community and relationships, through the redemption of our bodies in Jesus and our transformation into his image by the Spirit?”
These pieces double down on weird, culturally constructed, visions for manhood and masculinity from a previous cultural moment, instead of finding positive things to say in the face of poorly articulated cultural constructions. They co-opt the image of Jesus to advance this cause instead of thinking carefully about masculinity, femininity, and about how biological realities shape and inform both created patterns and sinful distortions of those patterns. They fail to find the antidote for cursed toxic masculinity in the curse-breaking life and death of Jesus — for example how his strength plays out in the defeat of Satan at the cross, and how Jesus’ life models a counter-cultural approach to a toxic masculinity that is big on violence and power, rather than wanting a sea of unshaved mini-Samsons to punch out the Philistines… but more than that, they exclude from the body those who belong. They double down on Esaus at the expense of Jacobs.
The tragedy of these two pieces from Desiring God is that they do the over-correcting opposite of the cultural wave it seeks to defend against. In a way that is every bit as damaging as the ‘eradication’ of anything essential about our personhood. If nothing is free to be constructed, intentionally, by us, as a sort of cultural expression or performance of character, or at least if the construction is only done at a cultural level then you’re in big trouble if you sit biologically or experientially outside the norm. There is no space for an intersex individual to navigate the world on their terms, let alone those who like Jacob, simply prefer a performance of their biological sex, or gender, that others might deride as weak. There is no space for a masculinity (or femininity) as a deliberate counter-cultural construction that deliberately, consciously, and individually, communicates one’s particular story (even if it is that our story is of being reconnected to the givenness of things), the only way to articulate a Biblical manhood or womanhood is to see our lives as combative performances in a culture war. There is no place for the subjectivity of aesthetics or experience (and taste) to be accommodated in neighbourly difference and love within communities. It robs us of the very personhood it seeks to establish, and the richness of life together.