What Is a Man?

I’m a father to all sons. And let me tell you, even as toddlers, my sons are boys among boys. They love to run and jump and climb on things. There isn’t a day that goes by that they don’t pretend to be superheroes. They eat dirt. Anytime a cool-looking car passes by, they must drop everything and talk about it. And they are alarmingly adept at resolving issues amongst themselves through use of physical violence. 

They also take their cues from dad on what it means to be “a boy.” For instance, I will often leave my work desk to grab a snack from the kitchen only to return to my home office and find one of my sons pounding away at my keyboard, sending incoherent messages to my coworkers and declaring, “I’m daddy!”

There are some interesting things they pick up, though. I’ll give you an example. One morning, my eldest son, who is about four years old, came into my office before anyone else in the house was awake. Sometimes he likes to chat with me as I check emails and take care of some administrative tasks at the beginning of the work day. This time, he was telling me about his plans for the future. 

“When I grow up, I’ll be the daddy,” he said. “This will be my office. And I work, work, work. And then I make dinner.” 

It struck me that his conception of being a man consists of being a dad who works and makes dinner for the family. But the only reason he thinks that is because it’s what he sees me do every day. 

Conversely, everything he knows about weightlifting he learned from my wife. Much like any mother with small children, she does not get a moment to herself. And so when she goes to the garage to work out, often moving around impressive weight on a barbell and doing pull-ups, she almost always has an audience. 

More than a mere spectator, my eldest is captain of the cheer section, often shouting, “Wow, mommy! You strong! You do hard things!”

So, in his mind, women are mommies who lift weights.

My son’s assumptions—that men are dads who cook dinner and women are moms who lift weights—are perfectly reasonable given his life experience. But to most of the world, these assumptions are somewhat unconventional, or at least they used to be. 

In recent years, our culture has been experiencing a crisis of identity when it comes to gender and gender roles. This crisis, in many ways, has apparently hit boys and young men especially hard. According to recent research, men account for almost three-fourths of death of despair (that is, deaths by suicide or overdose), and male participation in the workforce is in decline. 

The reasons for these trends are complex, but one contributing factor might include the decline of industrial jobs, which have typically been filled by men, as western society moves into a post-industrial era. 

But another is the rise of feminism, which has resulted in higher female college graduation rates and professional advancement. This is obviously a good thing, and there is a long way to go before the corporate landscape reflects true equity. 

Nevertheless, while society rages against powerful men at the top, many young men at the bottom are left feeling like even being a man carries a stigma. 

In response to this cultural shakeup, we have seen the defiant rise of toxic masculinity—the thought being that if men are fundamentally problematic, then they should embrace being problematic to the fullest extent. 

Influencers like Andrew Tate and others within the extremely online “manosphere” community have called upon young men to be unabashedly aggressive, unempathetic, materialistic, misogynistic, and oftentimes racist and homophobic. And while these online personalities are clearly caricatures of real people, many young men are nevertheless listening to them and modeling their lives after them. 

To a lesser extent, this regression in thinking has also cropped up in evangelical circles, particularly when it comes to a renewed sense of fear about women gaining power in the church. 

For instance, at a time when the Southern Baptist Convention has been faced with the reality of a decades long sexual abuse crisis, Southern Baptists spent most of their annual meeting in 2023 debating which churches should be expelled from the denomination for letting women preach

Among proponents of Christian nationalism, some have begun to suggest that the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which gives women the right to vote, should be repealed in favor of “household votes” to be cast exclusively by landowners. 

Others have suggested that Christian women should only read theological books that have been preapproved by their husbands. 

These are all recent public conversations. 

At the same time, activists on the far left have encouraged young people to throw off any and all restraints when it comes to gender. Not only are men and women to be treated equally in society, but individuals ought to be able to personally determine their gender and what that gender even means. 

So, in many regards, young men are faced with a dizzying dilemma. They can choose to embrace all the worst things about masculinity, calling upon natural order or biblical mandate as their justification. Or they can step into a framework that is radically rethinking gender at its most fundamental level. 

This is controversial to say, but hang with me. When it comes to understanding sex and gender, both the left and the right are partially correct. But both are also dangerously wrong on key points. 

The right is correct that sex is binary. But the left is correct that gender exists on a spectrum. 

Let me explain. When I say that sex is binary, what I mean is that as a matter of human biology, men are men and women are women. However, when we are talking about what it means to be masculine or feminine, we are talking about traits that are not neatly defined. 

For example, we tend to think of masculinity in terms of being competitive, aggressive, independent, and logical. On the other hand, we conceive of femininity as being nurturing, empathetic, relational, and emotional. 

But we all know plenty of women who are competitive. And yet we don’t question whether they are women, even when they are displaying a conventionally masculine trait. Further, we all know plenty of men who are nurturing. But we don’t think of them as women, even when they are displaying a conventionally feminine trait. Or at least we shouldn’t. 

And that’s just the problem. Both the left and right argue that only women can display feminine traits and only men can display masculine traits. To the right, if a man is displaying a feminine trait, he needs to “man up.” To the left, if a man is displaying a feminine trait, he might be nonbinary. 

(Of course, this glosses over the very real condition of gender dysphoria, which can be particularly painful for children and teens. However, some research suggests that while immediate treatment interventions—excluding hormone treatment or surgery—are necessary, between 63% to 95% of cases eventually resolve themselves.)

What I am seeking to illustrate is that when it comes to the culture war, both the left and right have limited their thinking to believe that men necessarily exhibit certain character traits, or else they cease to be real men. In the end, we’re all playing by the same rulebook but just running different plays. Maybe we need to expand our thinking. 

Whereas the right is keen on forcing men to fit the mold of their culturally conceived vision for “God’s design,” the left encourages men to embrace who they are to the fullest extent, even if it means changing their pronouns. What if, instead, we encouraged men to embrace who they were to the fullest extent, but within God’s design of binary sex? 

In other words, what if we encouraged our boys and young men that it’s perfectly healthy—even worth celebrating—that they’re competitive and want to be superheroes, while also affirming that sometimes dads are the ones who make dinner? 

Obviously, it’s not that simple. Life never is. 

What I’m trying to say is this: Yes, God has designed sexual identity in terms of a binary, and men tend to portray certain traits while women tend to portray others. On the other hand, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, we all contain multitudes. 

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, you have never met an ordinary person. God has uniquely created each of us, knitting us together in our mother’s wombs with a bespoke pattern of gifts, passions, proclivities, and preferences. And he did it on purpose. 

When we lose sight of that in the fog of culture war, we do our boys and young men great harm.

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