Christine Emba’s article on masculinity making the rounds left and right has been hailed as the most important of 2023. Emba identifies three historical essentials of masculinity that need to be incorporated into any new vision whatever it means to be a man: protector, provider, procreator. Of course many on the right are going to pick up on these themes and highlight how traditional expressions of religion provide compelling visions of these themes, how patriarchy is the maximal way of living this out, how quivers full of children let a man be his manliest. And many on the left are going to critique it as essentialist and regressive, relying on stereotypes not needed by modern society.
I think Emba has identified three important core functions of men that can be evidenced in Scripture and history, but Christians need to be wary of embracing these as the paradigms of manliness given the highest expression of manliness in the God-Man Jesus of Nazareth involved an explicit rejection of them as the standard of righteousness. The embrace of self-death and weakness is paradoxically the only path to true masculinity.
Tempted as a Man
Consider the temptations of Christ in the desert, our Lord face to face with the old Enemy.
First, the Temptation of the Provider:
If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.
Here is a starving man, one who very well could multiply loaves and fishes times thousands to provide for followers. One by whom all things were made! And yet Jesus rejects the role of provider, even for himself, in lieu of deference to the will of his heavenly Father.
It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’
And to magnify this tempation,
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
What a temptation! Not one I could resist, to be able to provide not only for myself and my kin but for all mankind according to my magnanimous decision making. I would get the glory, but surely I would be good — and better than all these murderous dictators and fools occupying our positions of leadership, right? Right?
Again the only answer is deference to the Father and the subjection of his divine power to the glory of the Father.
It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’
Then comes the Temptation of the Protector:
The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written:
‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’
For Jesus this was surely the most difficult temptation, knowing full well he would be lifted to a high place but not to be cast down. Rather, he would be lifted up to a place of highest shame, blood-coated, body torn, hands and feet pierced. For him this promise of salvation was not only for this moment but for the time to come.
But again his will is subject to the Father:
It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
What then, of the Temptation of the Procreator?
Here is the one so many creatives have imagined knowing full well its reality despite no direct mention in the Bible. Scorsese imagined a Jesus tempted by love and family. Dan Brown famously ingited a search for the ‘real Jesus’ with his Da Vinci Code. Gnostic works going back millennia have imagined Jesus as procreator and lover. We know Jesus was among and beloved by man women but he was alone and childless. I find great meaning when considering Jesus the non-procreator, the bachelor, in the encounter Jesus had with a would-be follower in Luke 9:
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
A simple request
Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
A deep answer, in my opinion.
- Dens and nests are not merely places of comfort and dwelling, but places of mating and reproduction. Jesus did not say “people have pillows but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
- That final word, Head, is the word most used by patriarchal Christians to explain leadership in a home — kephale, head, authority — which despite numerous attempts from more egalitarian authors, they cling to as a symbol. But Jesus had nowhere his head belonged! He rejected the headship he might well have had on earth in a human home.
- “To lay” as a verb would be used sparingly but critically in the Gospels. It bears the connotation of bowing, laying, ending, evening, and death. John has Jesus bowing his head when dying. The women would bow their heads — same verb — when encountering the angels at an empty tomb. When Jesus encounters the disciples on the road to Emmaus he abides with them as the day had reclined — laid down. The Son of Man had no home, no place of recline, of rest, of comfort in the evening times. He reclinations were in death on the Cross and with the church.
Driving home the homelessness of Jesus, the passage continues:
Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
Note the rejection of the relationship to the human father. Indeed, what did Jesus, non-procreator and bachelor, know of human fathers? His own came and went in the story, gone by adulthood. His every reference to Father was His Heavenly Father, as he taught his disciples. The one through whom all things were made cut against the grain of the Jewish familial identity and the importance of procreation and patriarchy. Jesus, childless.
Jesus, bachelor, gives extra tension to his first miracle, too. Here is the mother of Jesus telling him to make wine for a marriage, a thing Jesus would never enjoy on earth for himself, and he protests that his time had not yet arrived. Still, she wanted him to do the thing she knew he could, and he did. But what a cutting moment for him. He who made wine for another’s wedding would never have wine for his own. Instead, he would be the cup, his blood poured out for others always.
Jesus rejected provide, protector, procreator as ultimate identities for men in favor of death. He did not reject them as good things, did not label them as sin, but he subjected them to the Will of the Father, that Will which requires that all die to self.
In other words, protection, provision, and procreation as a function of a natural inclination or personal ambition is in fact wrong because it is of the self. And manliness as expressed and taught by the God-Man Himself requires that we die to ourselves.
Consider how our identity with the self-denying suffering and death of Jesus permeates he New Testament:
Jesus said to his disciples,
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.
Paul wrote about marriage, in a passage that is wielded against Women when it should be stapled to men’s foreheads:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word
Peter tells the many servants and slaves in the Early Church, who knew suffering by virtue of their low estate:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
Unless we embrace our self-death and live in Christ — being “born again,” that picture of Baptism — our embrace or rejection of natural inclinations toward protection, provision, procreation will inevitably result in ruination.
So on the Right, a Christless self-embracing self-therapeutic strongman patriarchy embraces a masculine rule which requires violence and power and is most exemplified by Andrew Tate, a moral monster who in a good society would be castigated and made a laughing stock. A famous apologist said that postmodernity — a belief there is no God and we make our own meaning — would result in men being Hitlers or Hefners. That apologist was Ravi, who also never died to himself, choosing his own Hefner route.
So on the Left, a Christless self-embracing rejection of self-denial and embrace of self-love cannot handle male angst and masculine desires, but cannot offer anything like self-denial then could shape men into powerful forces for good. Masculinity itself has to be eradicated.
To be a man is to die. To be a husband is to die. To be a leader is to die. I am convinced the subtext of any sort of Christian male leadership ought to be a twin acknowledgement that male size and strength a) do provide natural advantage for men in leadership and in life and b) therefore pastors give an example of dying as Christ by using those advantage for the good of the disadvantaged.
How else can we understand Paul, whose constant (and annoying!) boast is about his weakness. 2 Corinthians, that most incorrigible letter of rebuke, is built on Paul saying “look here, I am nothing, Jesus is everything.” Paul’s passion for the provision and protection of the church in Corinth even as it spiritually procreates results in him saying “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” then spilling the beans about he got himself beat up, put down, and put away because of Jesus, and there was nothing he could do about it but seek God. He was the opposite of the men we set in front of ourselves as Masculine Icons.
Power in Weakness
I invite you, in lieu of examining how the church or society allow men to pursue their natural inclinations of protection, provision, and procreation (Mark Driscoll will handle that I am sure), why not consider how God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.
Consider how vainly our human efforts at patriarchy and power have ended of late, with male leaders succumbing to sexual and fiscal temptation right and left. With church abuses in concentration we’ve not seen in a long time.
Consider how the authority of the church today seems to rest in a stage, lights, a mic, and well-composed words, instead of simplicity, weakness, poverty, and power in the Holy Spirit.
Consider, when is the last time you heard a man with a mic say,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.