What is meant by the term toxic masculinity? Where does it come from and is it, as some critics assert, “baked into Christian theology?” What is the “masculine mold” that the culture and the church tend to encourage? And most importantly, what does Christlike masculinity look like? We’ll answer these questions and more Sean and Scott discuss the currently controversial subject of toxic masculinity.

Episode Transcript

Sean: What is meant by the term toxic masculinity? Where does it come from? And as some critics have claimed, is it baked into the cake of Christian theology? Most importantly, what does Christ-like masculinity look like? I'm your host, Sean McDowell.

Scott: I'm your co-host, Scott Rae.

Sean: This is Think Biblically, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. We've got a hot topic today, which is one we often discuss, which is the topic of toxic masculinity. Let's dive into what's meant by this term, 'cause I think there's a lot of debate and disagreement and even misunderstanding of what the term even refers to.

Scott: Yeah, I think the term, as far as I can understand it, the term refers to when typically masculine traits are expressed in a way that's harmful, either to women or to children, primarily those two. So to be a little more specific, it's when masculinity becomes domineering, becomes entitled, becomes overly aggressive. It's when it involves emotionally repressing yourself.

Sean: Okay.

Scott: Entitlement, primarily a sexual entitlement that leads to sexual harassment and abuse of women. Sort of, and then I guess that sort of rugged, unattached individual with no commitments.

Sean: Okay.

Scott: - I'd say all of those are examples of when masculinity can become toxic.

Sean: So is carried within this the idea that masculinity itself is toxic or when it's applied in a certain way based on certain cultural stereotypes of what masculinity is supposed to be?

Scott: Yeah, I don't think it's inherently toxic, but it can become that way when it's associated with bad behavior.

Sean: Okay.

Scott: Behavior that I think we all recognize is out of line.

Sean: Some would say it's a confusing time to be a man. Now, of course, there's been a lot of debate about what is a woman and the difficulty of being a young girl and a woman today. That's a different conversation. But do you believe it's true or that it's confusing to be a man today?

Scott: I do believe it's confusing to be a man today. The world is a different place than when I grew up, where the definition of masculinity was, for one, not nearly so toxic. And the traits of a good man, I think, were basically fairly universally agreed on. Now, of course, they had lots of toxic expressions of that, 'cause there was abuse and domestic violence and all of that when I grew up as well. And I think today we have, culture tells you two different ways of being a man. The culture that a lot of guys grow up with is different than what they hear from the women in their lives. And there's two different sets of expectations. And I think those are mirrored in a lot of our churches. And I think sometimes our churches advertise a form of masculinity that I wouldn't say is inherently toxic, but borders on it. And yet we hear other things from both the culture and the church from the female side of the house about what makes a man a good man.

Sean: I don't think for me it's that confusing to be a man, partly because I've had a good example in my father that I've seen, but certainly as I've gotten older, I've seen, oh, there's other ways of being a man and a father, your horizons kind of expand. That's 'cause I've had a clear cut example of someone who's lived that and modeled that in that relationship. If that's not there, something's gonna fill the void and make it really, really confusing.

Scott: Well, and I think, yeah, obviously for someone who's grown up basically without a dad.

Sean: It's a whole different story.

Scott: It's a whole different ball game because they've had nobody to pave that path for them. And I think our, you know, I learned a lot about being a man just from watching my dad. We didn't talk about this very much. I just watched him. And I learned a lot about that.

Sean: That makes sense. Now there's something that's called the masculine mold that many in our churches and our culture communicate to men. What is that masculine mold? How does it compare and contrast with a feminine mold? And how should we think about these ideas?

Scott: This is culturally contingent.

Sean: Okay.

Scott: - And so what I'm referring to is what American culture or Western culture largely does. What this would look like in Asia or in Sub-Saharan Africa could be entirely different.

Sean:- Okay.

Scott: But I think that the mold has to do with, Not so much what it means to be a good man, but you see it come out when people issue that mandate, now be a man, which is essentially, don't show your feelings, don't express emotions, don't be perceived as weak, be competitive above all else, win at all costs. And in some circles, not in Christian circles, but it includes sexual prowess as well. And sex is viewed as more of a conquest than a relationship. So that's, I think, the mold, the general mold. And you see this in some of the ways that churches celebrate Father's Day, for example, with this sort, they'll put monster trucks and motorcycles and lounge chairs with big screen TVs in a man cave and it doesn't leave room for guys who may be artists or musicians or just not be into those kinds of things. And so it tends to define masculinity as that sort of adventuresome, aggressive, and grab the world by the throat. That kind of mold, which I think has more to do with an individual man's temperament than it does any sort of consensus about what masculinity is.

Sean: This is a good example of how certain stereotypes can bring harm to people who don't fit within those stereotypes. And oftentimes we see them in the culture with a stereotype of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood or whatever stereotype we wanna have, import that into the church without being careful of what scripture really teaches about manhood or womanhood, feminine and masculine. That's why it's important to think about these carefully. Now, would you say there's a difference between what it means to be a good man and versus what you said a minute ago when somebody says, "Man up."

Scott: Yeah, this is, I think there was an experiment that was done, and it was done at West Point. Really interesting discussion of this. He asked, the sociologist asked the cadets at West Point.

Sean:- Okay.

Scott: Says, "When someone delivers a eulogy and says he was a good man, what does that mean? Cadets had no trouble answering. Honor, duty, integrity, sacrifice, do the right thing, stand up for the little guy, be a provider, protector, be responsible, be generous, give to others. He said, ‘Where did you learn that?’ And the unanimous answer was, it's from the Judeo-Christian heritage, it's part of the cultural era that we preview. Now, what if I tell you, “man up, be a real man? They said, that's completely different. To be a real man means to be tough, strong, never show weakness, win at all costs, suck it up, play through pain, be competitive, get rich, and have sexual conquests.” Those are two entirely different pictures. And I think that distinction between a good man and a real man, I think reflects where the cultural stereotype goes off the rails. 'Cause I don't think we would say that the real man is necessarily any kind of moral model to be emulated.

Sean: Sure.

Scott: Yet we treat it like that when we tell someone to man up. Basically, and when the scripture talks about, it's really interesting, when the scripture talks about admonitions to be a man, it's not suggesting that you be a man as opposed to acting like a woman. The scripture contrasts is you be a man as opposed to continuing to act like a child.

Sean: Like a child, interesting.

Scott: So in other words, when the scripture says to man up, really it just means to grow up. As we say in Texas, we say cowboy up.

(Sean laughs)

Scott: And that just means grow up, be an adult, don't be a child anymore. And it really didn't have anything, it had more to do with maturity than it did with masculinity.

Sean: That's a helpful distinction. You're talking about some of the stereotypes. I sent out a tweet not long ago and I wrote, I asked people, “what are some of the biggest lies you think are perpetrating culture?” And I said, one of the biggest ones is that real men don't cry. I think that's a damaging false idea. I mean, real men do cry at the right things, at the right time and in the right way. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. But these stereotypes get mixed in with what we think it means to be a man.

Scott: Yeah, I think it's just a fallacy to think that showing emotion means showing weakness. And actually, some of those courageous people I know are the ones who let their emotions come out. I remember not long ago when the Laker great, Pau Gasol, was being on, his jersey was being hung in the rafters at the Lakers Arena. And after part of the– it kind of chokes me up to remember it, but part of the ceremony was a video that had been recorded from the media when after one of their championships, Kobe Bryant was talking how much his teammate and his relationship with Pau Gasol meant to him. And he predicted that Pau was gonna get his number hung up in the rafters. This is like seven or eight years before that. And you could tell just remembering how much Kobe Bryant meant to him, completely choked him up. And he just, I mean, he just sort of, and he lost it all right there on center court at the arena. But nobody saw that as being weak. I mean, everybody I think saw that as what it was.

Sean: It's a good response.

Scott: A good man who had a very appropriate response to a very moving moment. And I actually think it takes a lot more courage to express your emotions than it does to repress them.

Sean: Well said. Now, some critics often claim that the mainstream evangelical vision of masculinity, whatever that is, is hurting people and especially women. Do you agree with that or disagree or would you qualify that?

Scott: I wanna qualify that pretty substantially.

Sean: Okay.

Scott: 'Cause I think there are parts of our masculinity. I mean, I think, let's say this, our masculinity is part of what I would call, what some would call the original software that we have as human beings, as part of being made in the image of God. The masculinity gone off the rails is, I would say, the analogous to a computer virus that's infected the system and caused things to go haywire. Now, the parts I think that are part of the original software have to do with things like honor, integrity. I mean, and they're not really unique to masculinity. We expect these out of women too.

Sean: Right, absolutely.

Scott: But I think the urge to provide and protect, I remember when my middle son was in, and he was probably in his early 20s, his band was playing in a bar and they walked outside and he saw a guy beating on his girlfriend. And his instinct was to get right in the middle of it and stop it because he was looking out. I think that's part of what it means to be a good man. And even though he was way outsized by the guy, he just instinctively ran over to protect someone who was vulnerable. I was really proud of him for it.

Sean: Absolutely.

Scott: Even though it cost us $2,000 in dental work.

Sean: Are you serious?

Scott: I'm serious.

Sean: Oh my goodness.

Scott: But the lesson that he learned out of it about protecting people who are vulnerable and who are at a disadvantage, I think was a very powerful one. So I think that's part of the software. I think part of the virus is this repression of emotions, the sense of entitlement, especially entitlement to be domineering and controlling over women, the entitlement to their bodies. So I think all of that, I think, is the part that actually does harm women, Domineering men leave scars. Verbal abuse leaves scars. Sexual harassment is traumatizing. We give PTSD treatments for people who are sexually assaulted. And I think those are the things that I think, we all agree that those are clearly out of bounds. Well, I think where we disagree is whether that's something inherent to being a man or something that's a part of the computer virus. And I think not only to be the most charitable to men, but also I think just to be in touch with reality suggests that that's part of the virus that was not part of the original design. And it's true that masculinity without morality has a tendency to go off the rails because there are no guard rails in that case. And I think part of what the polling data tells us too, that I find super interesting is that there's a difference in, it's often lumped together, there's a difference between people who are, men who are nominally Christian. You may self identify, claim this, but rarely go to church. They're basically Christian in name only. They tend to be some of the worst offenders when it comes to masculinity being toxic. Men who are deeply committed to their faith, who attend church regularly, care about their families, are invested in their children and their wife, their marriages, read their Bible regularly, pray regularly. That group has by far the lowest incidence of quote, toxic masculinity, lowest incidence of child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, verbal abuse, all of that is just way, way, way below the national average. So I think the idea is that Christian faith, when properly practiced and applied, is actually part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Sean: So there's a difference between certain stereotypes from, say, our culture being brought into the church and toxic masculinity being baked into the cake of Christian theology. And I have concerns about the first, but less about the second. Do you think it's baked into our theology? And what would you say to those who say, "No, it's actually Christian theology itself that encourages this kind of toxic masculinity."

Scott: I think it's actually the latter. I think Christian theology properly understood and applied actually encourages men to love their wives as Christ loved the church.

Sean: Amen.

Scott: Something like that. So I think what we have to recognize is that in the New Testament world, and where a lot of this allegation comes from is Paul's description of women as the weaker partner. And somehow the suggestion is that they are somehow inferior creatures to men. But I think what Paul was suggesting there was not a weakness born of something that was in a woman's constitution. It was a weakness born out of the power imbalance and the vulnerability that women experienced routinely in the first century Greco-Roman world. Remember, men had virtual license to sleep with whoever they chose to, whether the men were married or not. Women, if they had the least hint of adultery, could be divorced and left destitute. And so there's this enormous double standard of sexual entitlement that when the New Testament said, no, men are not entitled to do that, men are to be faithful to their wives, they're to love them as Christ loved the church, it turned the Greco-Roman world of sexuality completely on its head. And that's why I think Paul emphasized in Ephesians 5 that the model of marriage properly applied and understood actually is the best thing out there that reflects God's love for His church. And that's where I think, you know, is the idea that the man is, the husband is the head of the wife, I think has been hugely misunderstood because that's not a license to be authoritarian. It's not that he's the ruler or the dictator over his own. That was true in the first century world because men had absolute authority over their home. They viewed their children as property that they owned and could dispose of them as they chose and often did when they would leave children to die by the roadside in a form of infanticide. And so I think, and the other place where we get the accusation that's baked into our theology is from Genesis one and two, where Eve is described as the helper to Adam, you know, “the help me,” whatever that term means. I'm still not quite sure how he coined that term. But the term in Hebrew that's used to describe Eve as the helper, that's one of maybe two or three times it's used of a human being as a helper. It's overwhelmingly used, and we've talked about this before, to describe God. God is the one who is the ultimate helper of Israel and of human beings. And there's nothing that obviously that implies weakness or inferiority based on that. And I think two, I think the New Testament world, Paul recognized that women were more vulnerable, that had something to do with biology and pregnancy, that they're not weaker in terms of stature or constitution, but more vulnerable because of power imbalances. And in part, I think because of the fact that men don't, you know, men don't bear children. And that is just a difference between, you know, between men and women in that regard.

Sean: I've heard some people also argue from Genesis chapter three, where Satan goes to Eve rather than going to Adam 'cause she was weaker and women are more gullible. These are the kinds of things that people draw from, which is clearly not within the text. So there's endless passages that people can take to make this argument, but I think you got to the heart of two of them and showed that this is not baked in the cake of Christian theology when done well.

Scott: Now, that's not to say that those theological things haven't been abused and misapplied.

Sean:- Fair enough.

Scott: In fact, I think you probably made good arguments that they've been misapplied fairly routinely. But we should call them what they are in SMS applications.

Sean: So in purity times, in Puritan times,

Scott: (laughing) Which was also purity.

Sean: There you go. Masculinity was associated with Christian faith and emphasized sacrifice for the common good. Most work was out of the home with moms and dads and children working together. What changed and what was the impact of that kind of family work structure transformation?

Scott: Well, I think it's hard to overstate the impact of what happened when work became separate from a person's life at home. When men had to leave home to go work in factories in cities and leaving women, basically leaving women home to take care of the home and to raise children. In fact, the interesting thing to, I think, men increasingly, and we see this in a lot of the media that was there in the teens and 20s, in the early part of the 20th century. This is what actually led to prohibition because men, in order to deal with the dehumanizing effect of the initial factory work, this was before OSHA and a lot of safety regulations.

Sean: Sure.

Scott: And it was. It was soul-sucking. Men, instead of going home, went to the pubs and saloons. And men spent a lot of their time being drunk and drunken disorderly instead of coming home and being with their families. And it was widespread actually during this period that women were proclaimed as the superior sex.

Sean: Interesting.

Scott: Because they were the ones who were tasked with inculcating virtue into the next generation. And the men were AWOL. And now you see all these cartoons and depictions of men with their wives standing outside the saloons begging them to come home and pay attention to their families. So, and men changed as well with this. Men became more self assertive, more competitive. They had, there was more emphasis on being acquisitive. Now, they did this largely, I think, for the benefit of their families, but ego and the necessity of being competitive with your peers came out in ways that just didn't happen when the workplace was in the home and the home was largely a self-sufficient entity. So there, I mean, this was the beginning of a sacred secular split. Women were seen as being, quote, the civilizing influence. I've had to stop myself from using that term because back in those early days of the 20th century, people actually believed that that was true. And I think there probably is some, that women do civilize some of the tendencies of men to go off the rails by providing a place for them to come and be invested in their homes and in their families.

Sean: I've heard Prager make that argument a lot, where he talks about when a man gets married, that he'll use the term civilizing. But the point being the vast majority of crime is done by single, young, unattached men. And your focus is shift towards the family and caring from the outside. So I think there's certainly some truth to that.

Scott: And I think too, the impact of Darwinism, I think we shouldn't understate that because Darwinism tended to see men as beasts who needed women to tame them. That came right out of Darwinian evolution. And I think some of our toxic masculinity, I think we just need to be careful, I think, to see both the sexes for what they are. when women were portrayed as the virtuous ones and men were perceived as the irresponsible slackers. And then that gets reversed. But I think both sexes have fallen prey to the general interests of sin. It just manifests itself differently at different times.

Sean: That makes sense. Now, when we talk about toxic masculinity, a lot of people will turn towards purity culture, which probably started mid-90s into the 2010s maybe. It was kind of this idea of how sexual purity was taught in the evangelical church. Basically in a formulaic kind of fashion that if you don't do these certain things now, be sexually involved, although that wasn't always defined, then you'll have wonderful marriage and wonderful sex and God will provide the spouse in the future. Some have called it the sexual prosperity gospel, so to speak, leaves the impression that the body was evil and sex was dangerous and that sex became the primary aspect of someone's sanctification. There's a few concerns that have been raised with purity culture. Do you see a connection between purity culture and masculinity? If so, what do you think that might be?

Scott: Well, I think some have overreacted to purity culture in ways that make masculinity toxic.

Sean: Interesting, okay.

Scott: And I think, for example, I think some of the initial popularity of people like Mark Driscoll is a good example of that and why people were drawn to his ministry. 'Cause I think he had more of the man up mold.

Sean: He did, yeah.

Scott: Than necessarily the good man. Although I wouldn't want to make too sharp a distinction in his ministry. But I think it did, I think purity culture did leave the impression, and my nephew was a product of purity culture. And I don't think it's been harmful for him 'cause he's happily married with kids. But I think it left the impression that sex was this incredibly dangerous thing before you were married. And then all of a sudden, once you're married, it's this thing that God ordained. Well, no, God ordained it all along, but just put boundaries around it. And then I think it did leave some people with the impression that the body is evil and can't be trusted. You can't trust your desires. And in some cases, that's true. But I think it also made, it also left the impression that the behavior of women is in part, if not entirely responsible for the sexual misdeeds of men.

Sean: Yep, there you go.

Scott: And I think that's where it becomes really dangerous and toxic.

Sean: I think that's the heart of it right there, that men can't really control themselves, They're sexual beings. Women's job is to stop and limit kind of the prowess of man, the term used earlier. And so the responsibility is on women to set these boundaries and to dress a certain way. So if something doesn't work out, the women would often get shamed and they would get blamed rather than the guy. Also being emphasized, you have self-control, you have choice, here's how you need to treat a woman. Some of that came out of purity culture.

Scott: I think the other part that I think that was harmful about purity culture was this notion that if for some reason you don't save yourself for marriage, regardless of what the reasons are, you're somehow a tainted human being. And there was something I think that was viewed as unredeemable about that. And that even though a woman lost her virginity or a guy lost his virginity, the notion that virginity can be emotionally remade as in the Song of Solomon's Imager, the divine gardener remakes the garden. I think that was lost, I think. And that was really unfortunate because the amount of guilt and shame that people carried with them for years and years, even well into marriage, I think was pretty damaging.

Sean: So let me play off this because sometimes there's concern that there's a double message that's often given, that sexual desire is so intense that you better get married, yet we tell gay Christians to be celibate and obviously cannot express their intense sexual desires. Is that a double message that the church is sending? How do you make sense of that and how does that tie to masculinity?

Scott: Well, I think it can be, and I think purity culture probably did give a double message, though I don't think they said much about gay and lesbian believers being celibate.

Sean: That is true.

Scott: I think it's, yeah, it seems obvious, say for someone who is same sex attracted, who was raised in a purity culture context, you know, the impact of that double message would have been significantly felt, I think. And so if someone is hearing, you know, watch out, be careful, watch out, don't give in, this is dangerous, and then all of a sudden in marriage, all bets are off now. That's where I think it gives men that feeling of sexual entitlement that was often difficult to control. And I think the idea that once you're married, it's sort of a free range, free for all, sexual smorgasbord in marriage, when the reality of that is not even close to being true, because you have all sorts of time periods where sex may just not be available. During pregnancy, when children are young. We had a long time when our kids were young, where we'd collapse in a heap at the end of the day. But I think for the gay Christian, to tell them basically forget you have sexual desires, is the message. So how can they be so powerful and so profound that you have to take every precaution not to let it stain you forever, but yet if you're same-sex attracted, consider that just off the table. I think that's a double message.

Sean: That's fair. Yeah, good, good stuff. So let me ask you this one. You and I interviewed Erik Thoennes a while ago about gender and a biblical view of gender. Let's focus on masculinity. What does or what should Christ-like masculinity look like?

Scott: Gentleness, humility, willingness to put your self-interest at the bottom of the pile, which in my view is sort of the definition of a parent. That's sort of, this is what it is.

Sean: It's true.

Scott: Willing to sacrifice your own individual interest for the broader common good, namely of your family and your community. Not one of personal ambition, not one of self-fulfillment, not where it's all, not where it's me doing me, but commitment to all things outside of myself. Now, I think there's probably, there's a strength in there. There's a capacity for leadership and provision and protection, I think, that's part of a Christ-like view of humility. I mean, Jesus stood up to evil.

Sean: He did.

Scott: I mean, nobody ever doubted, and in fact, that's what I've enjoyed so much about watching "The Chosen." So nobody, no, none of Jesus' followers ever doubted that he had a backbone. I mean, especially, ask the religious leaders. But he was also humble, didn't call attention to himself. He was gentle, he was kind. He was not only willing, but able to show his emotions freely. I think he was a basket case at the tomb of Lazarus, for example. Sure. And I know he was a mess, figuratively speaking, when he was weeping over Jerusalem, just before he went to the cross. So that's what I think characterizes Christ-like masculinity. And I think in large part, it's basically the fruit of the spirit that men exhibit.

Sean: I love that. I think that's stated well. It's amazing that you use the example of Jesus for masculinity, because when I ask Christian audiences, give me an example of a manly man. It's always Samson, and it's always David. I think I've had one person shout out, Jesus. We don't think of him that way because of certain feminine stereotypes that we have adopted from the culture, and probably a certain way that we read the scriptures as well.

Scott: If you took out the incident with Goliath, they might not include David. - Yeah, that's a fair point. - 'Cause David was, he's a poet, he's a musician, a sweet singer of Israel. He was very emotional. I mean, if the Psalms are any indication of his emotional life.

Sean: That's true.

Scott: He did not repress his emotions.

Sean: He had the emotions and he had some of the stereotypical masculine stuff as well. Maybe just give us one thing you think churches could do to adopt this better. What's one kind of takeaway? And I think what you said early on was just avoid some of these stereotypes. There's nothing wrong with having a man cave, nothing wrong with playing football. Those things are all great, But if we give the impression that's what it means to be a man, not helpful.

Scott: Well, that's the only thing.

Sean: Or the only thing that it means.

Scott: I think, you know, I'd say, give me two. Okay, all right.

(both laughing)

Scott: Sorry, inside joke. But I think for one is, you know, the dads have got to be present. And they've got to be engaged and involved in their kids' lives. And your kids will know what a man is by watching you be one.

Sean: Amen.

Scott: More than anything that you tell them, they will do it by watching you be them. And then I would say for churches, especially to call it out, and don't circle the wagons and protect when masculinity becomes toxic. Call it out, call it for what it is, listen to people who've been victimized by it. This is why I'm so encouraged with some of the recent revelations of sexual abuse in the church. We're calling it out. We're making it clear that this is not acceptable and this is not what it means to be a good man.

Sean: Amen.

Scott: And I think that's equally important.

Sean: This is a great conversation. I appreciate you doing the work. I obviously leaned on you heavily and you manned up for this one, man. I couldn't resist, couldn't resist. But I-

Scott: And I appreciate that.

Sean: Obviously you thought about this a lot, had some great answers, really, really helpful. Any books you would recommend people check out on this topic further on masculinity, or just go back and listen to this two or three times?

Scott: Well, I would suggest, it's coming out soon, our good friend Nancy Pearcy has knocked it out of the park with this, "The Toxic War on Masculinity."

Sean: Great book.

Scott: It is so good, so helpful. And I mean, she holds all the right things biblically and theologically, but she's also traced it historically in ways that showed how this toxic masculinity and really the war on masculinity, how that got started and where it is today. Super helpful.

Sean: Read it too and love it. Excellent book, “The Toxic War on Masculinity” by Nancy Pearcy. Give it a thumbs up. This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing it with a friend. Thank you for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.