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Is masculinity really toxic? A thoughtful book review

Updated: May 30

Editor's Note: We have noticed a dangerous trend in secular society - the demonization of masculinity based on the bad behavior of too many men. It has resulted in a dangerous oversimplification called "toxic masculinity." Are men truly toxic, or has the world simply lost it's way? In this article, Todd Porter reviews the best book we have read about a course correction. It involved understanding why society has decided to label men as toxic, and highlights that the solutions are still found in God's word and HIS vision of manhood.


“The most dangerous phrase in the English language is ‘be a man.’” — Eva Wiseman


I know that this quote will evoke some strong reactions. What may be more shocking to you is that as a conservative Christian man, I agree with her. I agree that the way in which we define manhood and masculinity has lost its way and needs an injection of biblical truth to get back on course.


This is the central theme of Nancy Pearcey’s The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes. Pearcey outlines how we have arrived at a place where masculinity is now considered ‘toxic’ and how the intentional application of Christian values can help get us out of it. She makes the case that social and economic changes over the course of American history have altered the common perception of masculinity and has resulted in us abandoning former notions of masculinity that were considered more positive.


a good man v. a real man

Percey starts the book by outlining the current perceptions of masculinity and describes what she defines as two scripts for masculinity - that of a “Good Man” versus a “Real Man”. She argues that these scripts exist without us really even being consciously aware of it. The telling example that highlights this is shared from research by sociologist Michael Kimmel asking West Point cadets the difference between the two. They respond that a Good Man exhibits character traits of “honor, duty, integrity, sacrifice, doing the right thing, be a provider, be a protector.” Conversely, a Real Man is described as “tough, strong, never show weakness, win at all costs, suck it up...be competitive, get rich, [be promiscuous].”


She goes on to describe how the secular world has bought in this Real Man narrative and highlights the devastating consequences this has had on men, boys and ultimately the way society views them. While we would expect Christian values to serve as a stout bulwark to this worldview, it turns out that is not always the case. The evidence she presents in fact shows that what she defines as nominally Christian men (i.e. Christian in name, but not in practice) are the worst perpetrators when measured in terms of divorce rate and domestic abuse. Conversely, committed Christian men are polar opposites and demonstrate the lowest divorce and domestic abuse rates. It will probably come as little surprise that it is the nominal Christian results that get trumpeted by society, while the committed Christian men get lost in the wash.


how did we get here?

With her premise of an altered narrative of masculinity established, Pearcey goes on to explain how we ended up here. To do so she provides a survey of American history from the early colonial period to the modern era, highlighting the industrial revolution as the initial catalyst for the course we are currently on. She also describes the various temperance movements over time that served to try and “reign in” men’s increasing “bad” behavior. Each chapter closes by bringing the reader back to a scripture-based, Christian perspective on the topic at hand. It is through this device that she makes her case of illustrating how through each period of history the secular script progressed and moved the view of masculinity further away from the Biblical model outlined in the scriptures. She closes the book with offering some additional recommendations for how men can reverse the course of the secular “Real Man” narrative.


Generally speaking, I agree with Pearcey’s diagnosis of the issues around the modern perception of masculinity (i.e. inherently toxic) and her argument on how it came into being.


Her presentation of two disparate yet co-existing versions of masculinity was a novel idea to me. It made me realize that I have been wrestling with the incoherence between how masculinity has been modeled in the world around me and what I saw in the scriptures. I had unknowingly been trying to reconcile the two into one. The dichotomy had existed in plain sight, but I previously hadn’t been able to see it clearly. Pearcey’s illustration of the Real Man vs. Good Man narrative crystallized this for me.


She makes the case that the industrial revolution was the turning point in history where this perception of masculinity changed. Based on the evidence presented in the book I’m inclined to agree. This period in history is identified as pivotal as it impacted the family dynamic significantly. The shift in work from the farms, workshops and family businesses moved fathers out of the homestead and to the office or factory. Whereas a father was previously in the home, working with his family - he was now absent during most waking hours. This was a major shift from how the family dynamic had functioned for the majority of prior history. What was once a family venture, now became a solo operation by the mother at home. Anyone with children quickly comes to the understanding that children learn as much (if not more) from what you do and how to behave as opposed to what you say. So, by the mere fact that suddenly the father was absent for most of the day this aspect of the relationship was removed. 


the consequence of a secular idea of success

Pearcy also highlights another related dynamic that is impacted by the massive shift in the work environment - how a man may experience or define success. When the source of livelihood was integrated with the family, the family had a shared experience of both the successes and setbacks. This shared experience created a bond among the family. With the fathers’ vocation now taking him out of the home, success and failures rested solely with the man and were distinct from his family.


Pearcey also interestingly points out how the onset of the “machine” age shifted public thinking. The advent of modern scientific thought and the corresponding broad belief that with science we had “arrived.” That which could be scientifically shown as factual was elevated, resulting in a split between values (which were considered subjective) and facts ( considered objective). In a parallel manner there developed a bifurcation between the public and private spheres of life. Whereas previously work, home life and faith all blended together, now there was compartmentalization. This only went further to strengthen the divide that had already formed between men and women.


the feminization of Christianity

The aforementioned societal divide between public and private ultimately led to the feminization of the church and our perception of Jesus. Pearcey makes a strong case for this by arguing that with men removed from the home life, women inherited stewardship of private life and values - most significantly in this case, spirituality. The result of this and associated societal trends is the idea that women are naturally more spiritual than men. This assertion is only reinforced by the fact that the majority of churchgoers are women. Over the long term this developed into an over-emphasis on what would typically be considered feminine characteristics of Christ. The natural consequence is a de-emphasis on Jesus’ masculine characteristics.


The most damaging part of this trend is that it gives men an excuse to not be spiritual. It creates the false dichotomy of a choice between the secular Real Man narrative and a feminized Christianity. It is a false choice because the masculine Jesus and character of God is readily available in the scriptures - it just takes an intentional effort to obtain it.


doubling down on a biblical vision of manhood

The answer isn’t in caving to the secular narratives or taking a step back from the spiritual engagement. That leads to the “nominal” Christianity that Pearcey demonstrates is so damaging. The answer is in men taking responsibility for their families and their own spirituality, regardless of the situation. As Christians we are called to be in the world, but not of it. So instead of letting ourselves be carried along by destructive cultural trends, we need to be standing against them.


Reclaiming a biblical masculinity is also found in building emotional connectivity with our spouses and families. The secular script has taught us that displays of emotion are considered taboo by men, but from the scriptures we see the full array of emotions from Christ. Emotional vulnerability equates to authenticity - which is essential for intimacy in any relationship. Just as God tested the Israelites in the desert to know them authentically, we too must create space for that authenticity in our relationships.


The industrial revolution set America on a course that ultimately led to the rise of a secular definition of masculinity that distorts the biblical narrative. The Toxic War on Masculinity challenges us to confront societal expectations and cultural narratives that have led to this distortion. By embracing a Biblically grounded understanding of manhood, men can forge a path towards personal fulfillment, authentic relationships, and a renewed commitment to be the men that God intended.


We have the tremendous opportunity to correct the narrative for the next generation and restore a Biblical definition of masculinity. Talking about the issues with the secular narrative of masculinity is not enough. Taking ownership for our own spiritual and emotional health as men and then modeling this to others is the way forward.


As Mark Twain said, “Actions speak louder than words, but not nearly as often.”


Todd Porter

Tampa, Florida


Todd is a project executive with extensive experience in the healthcare and technology sectors. He has a passion for understanding people's needs, guiding them towards their goals, and supporting their mental health journeys.He is committed to making a positive impact on people's lives, driven by his passion for the gospel. Todd, his wife Sara and their two teenage daughters live in Tampa, FL while actively participating in the Anchor Point church community.  You can reach him at tporter2003@gmail.com.

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