Redefining Manhood

Looking for maturity in a culture of prolonged adolescence.

We both consider ourselves to be manly men. Tim works on his own car and Jason wears flannel and grows a mean-looking winter beard. Both of us like strong dark beverages. We do other manly things, too, like buy Levi’s jeans and eat prime cut ethical beef. On Saturdays we lace up our work boots and don our sweat-stained hats toiling in our yards like little Wendell Berrys; content to cultivate our plot of suburban soil. On Sundays we ignore our doctor’s cholesterol warning and eat chicken wings while rooting for Tebow (Tim’s a lifetime Gator fan) and the Skins, respectively.

We are men.

But, all this modern-day testosterone plumage was tested one autumn day. Our families were enjoying the fall foliage during our annual trip to the Appalachian Mountains. The kids rolled down the hills screaming and took turns with the daddys on the four-wheeler. But inside the cabin, one of the children found a dead mouse sitting like an ornament in a decorative seasonal basket. The threat of the mighty creature’s presence haunted us throughout the day as we wondered when one of his non-dead friends might make the rounds.

Later that evening Tim found Fievel's friend alive and well.

As the two couples sat by the fire playing Uno with the older boys, enjoying the quiet after the little kids went to bed, Tim saw something scurry under the door of his 2-year-old daughter’s room. The adults shifted into high alert. Tim asked for cover, darted in the room, flipped on the light and rescued his daughter. Jason’s son spotted the critter behind a bureau shouting, “There he is!” Jason snatched a broom from the closet, and leapt onto the bed for an aerial view. The hunt was on!

The mouse, sensing Jason’s presence, scampered under the door to the adjacent bathroom. Heather, Jason’s wife, eyed the vermin behind the toilet. With deft broom skills, Jason poked the bristle-end-sabre in the direction of Heather’s pointing finger.

The mouse somersaulted out; stunned and disoriented, he limped back behind the bureau in the bedroom. Tim grabbed a walking stick near the front door and “urged” the mouse out once more. Jason waited high on his bedside perch poised to pounce. The two men were too much for the furry little one. The mouse scuttled out, Jason jabbed it with the broom. The hunt was over. The mouse, dead.

Men or Mice?

The adrenaline kept us up till 1 a.m. We dreamt of slaying dragons and rescuing the damsel in distress. The next morning we sipped Costa Rican brew and crunched bacon while we laughed through the night's mouse-killing tale. After breakfast, while the families packed for the trip back to Atlanta, Tim commented: “Do you know how suburbanized we are? We killed a mouse and we think we’re Bear Grylls.”

The comment incited a larger discussion: Who are we as men in this metro-sexualized world of buffoonery-sitcom-males and designer-flannel-wannabes? What does a real God-made-man look like?  

Author Bill Bennett, in his new release The Book of Man, reports that 48 percent of men between the ages of 18-34 are "the biggest users of video games," two hours per day. Add on four hours of television viewing and this demographic consumes six hours of amusement per day. More than ever men live disconnected from reality, all too eager to delay adulthood in favor of prolonged adolescence. And the childlike activities don’t end once the credits roll on Call of Duty. In fact, one might conclude that we have an epidemic of man-babies.

Our nation's divorce rate is 48 percent. Forty-one percent of all births in the United States occur outside of marriage. Forty-six percent of all men in America father at least one child outside of marriage. A hundred years ago fatherlessness was a result of paternal death. Men today are not physically dying as much as they’re choosing to live socially dead. When you consider a child born outside of marriage spends only six months of his or her entire childhood living with their father it’s not so farfetched to view manhood through an Ashton Kutcher-esque lens.

"He just came up and kissed me," 22-year-old Sara Leal told US Weekly. "He lost his towel and I took off my robe."

The article chronicles the now-famous one-night stand that is contributing to the ruin of a marriage and the tabloid stardom of a young woman. It also profiles a man who has now become a role model for all twenty- and thirtysomething wannabe playboys: Ashton Kutcher. For most men, this real-life scenario only happens in the movies. Films like The Hangover propagate the Hollywood gospel that says manhood equals debauchery, laziness and irresponsibility. If you believe what you see on the big screen, and in Mr. Kutcher’s hot tub, then manhood looks like being a slightly better dressed teenager.

Be a Man, Be There

The mouse-killing was a beginning point; a comical ruse to awaken thoughts of what it means to embrace our manhood. Our culture sends mixed signals to adolescents and men. Films and sitcoms cast manhood as a mindless endeavor defined by what we can get from society: money and power. And what we can take from women, sex. Manhood then becomes relegated to an image we cultivate rather than the relationships we cultivate.

To us, being a man is a serious endeavor that influences how our daughters view their future husbands and how our sons treat their wives and their sons. Historically men have done “manly” things together, living life in close proximity to one another. We tend to think it’s the things we do, like killing a mouse, watching NASCAR or drinking beer, that make us men. But that misses the point. It’s not what men and their sons do, it’s their togetherness. It’s being there. It’s a man passing on a trade or skill to his son. In that time spent a beautiful relational transaction occurs. In the Christian world we call this discipleship.  

Being present brings tension. A boy will test his father. A man will fail his son. But that’s part of the deal; for a boy to see his father fail and to understand how to cope with that, for a boy to press into his father and test himself against the man before him. Manhood does not miraculously emerge from playing video games and getting laid. It rises from the fires of testing ourselves against the men who mean the most to us in life.

Twenty-four million children in our country face life today without a father, while millions of men waste their lives pursuing a sitcom version of success. How do create a generation of men? It’s simple. Be one.

Timothy Willard and Jason Locy co-authored Veneer: Living Deeply in a Surface Society (Zondervan, 2011). Tim rides a super-manly mountain bike named Wiley. But that's nothing compared to Jason's super-gnarly winter beard. Follow them @endveneer.

57 Comments

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Jessica A. Casner commented…

I am sad to see that manhood's description does not include being a leader of the Word in the household.

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bullcityboi commented…

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Rebecca commented…

Exactly! I too know several male feminists, and in my experience I have had far and away some of the best treatment from them, far better than any of these really traditional guys. They listen to me, think what I say is both interesting and valuable, they think my opinions and needs matter, and they don't seem to feel that I was put here to serve them or in some way improve their life by rendering a service such as food or sex or entertainment. They even hold doors for me. When I date them, they fight me to pay the tab. They do all of this without my request.

And I'm a feminist too. While I understand that, as humans we all have different standards and opinions, I would like to be with a man who holds these kinds of viewpoints and attitudes. I'm not really up for a "traditional" style relationship. I would have to give up too much, probably and I don't think I would really be doing any man any favors by trying to be a housekeeper as I'm a total slob. I've invested too many years into my careers and hobbies to be good at housekeeping! My future husband and I would both be better off using some of our combined income to hire housekeeping. I just assume that when i find the right guy, it is going to be someone who is able and willing to share the household and child rearing duties, and will value my career and income as much as his own. He will value me for things like our relationship, how we interact, and my talents and abilities that are uniquely suited to the time period I live in. Also hopefully the sex. He will possibly enjoy my making pancakes on saturday, but it will not be some kind of requirement that I cook constantly. Hopefully we will share that. Or just eat out a lot! For myself, i'm looking for someone confident, respectful, kind and gentle. I would like someone who is unique in who they are (whatever that is) and has grown fully into the person the Lord meant them to be. Someone that I will fit comfortably with and vice versa. This person will probably be neither weak nor strong. They will be a human. I am not particularly looking for someone to strongly fill traditional or stereotypical male roles, though if he does some of those things and it is a full reflection of his true personality, that is fine. If he earns a lot of money at a job he loves, and kills insects for me, why would that make me unhappy? But I'm not terribly interested in that. I have my income, so I'm really looking for someone who is responsible and hardworking, who will not act like a dependent child. I'm not looking for a rich prince to sweep me off to a life of luxury. Oh, and I'm a tomboy, so of course I will be charmed if my future husband is good at killing insects to demonstrate his love, but I'm quite good at doing that for myself, thank-you-very-much.

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Rebecca commented…

Evonne, I have seen many of the suggestions that come from the Art of Manliness, and they are wonderful, and written by a man with a delightfully instinctual sense of the servant leaderhood that true manhood would entail.
I think many of our issues really are not that men would, say, hold a door for us, or do thoughtful or kind gestures. It is that some do these things and then expect that their duties are done, and that now that they have filled the role that society says that they should that now women owe them everything. The equivalent would be a man who pays for a dinner but expects to get laid at the end of the evening. Or a man who holds doors for women, but then doesn't respect their opinions or value them as people. Unfortunately I have seen this.

Ironically, I have (I mentioned this above) known several men who self identify as feminists. Some of them have very strong mother figures whom they respect greatly. One of my guy friends who is a feminist had a mother who was head lawyer of a corporate legal team, while his father was a stay at home dad. However these guys tend to do all of these kind and traditional male gestures, with the added bonus of not denigrating my abilities or accomplishments. Far from being treated by these guys like I am some kind of butch football player because I had better just tough it out with the guys now that I have equal rights, I have been treated very honorably. There just seems to be something about raising boys with a philosophy that women are capable and equal and worthwhile human beings that causes them to grow up to act like it!

I have also seen men with more traditional beliefs who fully value women as well, but I think it is harder for them, because sometimes traditional behaviors can be a veil to disguise beliefs that women are less valuable or important.

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Rebecca commented…

Wow, Adam. you get it.

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