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[Cross-posting something here that I wrote for my Substack. It may be more of interest to the Christians around here, but I don’t think the general decline of masculine intuition, which I discuss below, is a problem that is confined to social circles inhabited by Christians.]
I’m about to walk out the door to participate in a podcast that I do with the pastoral staff at my church. They all have advanced degrees in various disciplines related to theology and biblical studies. I am notable mostly for my lack of any of these things. If you picture in your mind a podcast where trained and critical thinkers on matters of eternal importance have inexplicably invited Big Bird to participate in their discussion, you will have a sense for where I fit into the overall effort.
I spent last night re-watching It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 Christmas classic from Frank Capra, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. We’re discussing that movie in a podcast series we’ve been doing for our church called “Reel Talk.” The Reel Talk series has been an extended discussion of a variety of movies that we recommend for their moral depth of insight — movies like Pinocchio and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, along with numerous others. We’re discussing our Christmas recommendation today because we record a month in advance of when these podcasts drop, so this conversation about It’s a Wonderful Life will come out in December.
If you remember that movie, you’ll understand what I’m about to say: one of the things that it caused me to reflect upon was the extent to which a person may have a lens through which he perceives and understands his own life, which is wildly, even catastrophically, disconnected from the life he has actually lived. “The heart is deceitful above all things,” the ancient prophet said. It is sobering to consider whether our understanding of our own lives lines up with reality.
Last Saturday, I took my third grader to a birthday party for one of his classmates. The party took place at a
chaotic riot business called Urban Air. Picture a giant building filled with trampolines and children of all ages running with abandon from one trampoline to the next. At each stop, they try their skill at some entertaining complication (e.g., a continuously rotating bar that constantly undercuts the child’s legs as he jumps) designed solely to make the trampoline experience more wild and chaotic.
In one part of the building, they had cornered off eight trampolines by fencing them in with netted walls. This was designated as the dodgeball room. The one and only rule was that you couldn’t purposefully try to hit someone in the face with the ball. So the room was full of kids (and a couple of young dads) bouncing on the trampolines while throwing balls at each other just as hard as they could. It would be hard to overstate just how much fun everyone was having. The laughter coming from the dodgeball room was both raucous and contagious.
The dads in the room were actually throwing pretty hard at the boys. Hard enough for the ball to really sting when the boys were hit with it. Nevertheless, the boys took great delight in testing their mettle against the strength of the young dads, sometimes running up to them and throwing the ball point-blank just as hard as they could, before running away, frantically trying to dodge the inevitable retaliation. All of this while laughing maniacally.
I was seated on a bench outside the dodgeball room watching all of this hilarity and, after watching for a while, something dawned on me: there was not a single girl playing dodgeball. There were plenty of girls running through the facility, mind you. But none of them had chosen to be in there, where the projectiles were flying. I made a mental note of this. And I decided to pay more careful attention to the comings and goings taking place at the entrance to the room.
There was a steady stream of boys heading into the room. Sometimes they were alone. Other times they were with their dad. But there were a few boys who showed up at the room accompanied by their moms. And in every case, standing near the entrance, the moms furrowed their brows and tried to discourage their sons from going in there. “Are you sure you want to go in there? You might get hurt.” Also, as it happened, none of these moms was wearing a wedding ring. From this, I inferred that these women were probably single moms with their sons.
These events prompted me to think about how it is that, in the absence of a father, a boy might come to interpret his own boyish inclinations. It gives me pause. The intuitions of each of the boys that I observed were that they wanted to do battle in the dodgeball room. But it was just as clear that these moms did not understand such a boyish inclination at all. In every case, the moms tried to discourage their boys from leaning into such boyishness. If a little boy’s masculine intuitions are only ever interpreted for him through the lens of female sensibilities, how might that form the lens through which he understands himself and his life?
Much has been written about the pathological effects of fatherlessness in terms of elevated criminality and violence. But what I observed outside the dodgeball room prompted me to consider the way, even if you set aside the extremes of criminality, a young man might nevertheless still come to perceive himself and the world through a predominately feminine lens. A person could be forgiven for wondering if the popularity of such toxic figures as Andrew Tate might be a sort of whiplash reaction to the cultural delegitimization of masculine intuition in general.
C.S. Lewis famously encouraged people to read “old” books because they will introduce the reader to ideas that readers might otherwise be deprived of, especially given our modern enthusiasm for what Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” In other words, Lewis cautions us against our modern tendency toward intellectual self-righteousness and conceit based on nothing more substantial than our civilizational youth. He proposes reading authors from another time as an antidote to our youthful self-regard.
My third grader and I came home from the birthday party that night, and he was exhausted from all the trampoline bouncing and the dodgeball wars. After his bath, he crawled into bed and I did something for him that his mom and I have done since he was a toddler: I sang old Christian hymns to him as he drifted off to sleep. (It would be hard to overstate just how much the third grader loves this tradition.) The lyrics of these old hymns easily confirm why C.S. Lewis suggested that reading old books would introduce you to ideas not contemplated by the peculiarities of modern obsessions. One of the hymns that night was written in the late 19th century by a lyricist and singer named James McGranahan.
There’s a royal banner given for display
To the soldiers of the King
As an ensign fair we lift it up today
While as ransomed ones we sing…
Marching on! Marching on!
For Christ count everything but loss.
And to crown him King
We’ll toil and sing
Beneath the banner of the cross.
— James McGranahan
The lyrics of this hymn are less focused on relationships and more concerned with goals. There is a no-kidding militaristic ambiance throughout. Soldiers, and marching, and banners, and work. Loyalty, at whatever the cost. The goal is to crown Christ as King and, if necessary, to cast aside every other personal consideration and need in pursuit of that defining goal (i.e., “For Christ count everything but loss.”)
Oh, I’m running to Your arms
I’m running to Your arms
The riches of Your love
Will always be enough
Nothing compares to Your embrace
Light of the world forever reign
There are no soldiers or marching about in these lyrics. There is, rather, lots of longing and a desire for physical affection. Through this more modern conceptual lens, Jesus is less a king and more a kind of boyfriend. As an aside, I will observe that in the world as it really is, kings are capable of having a more far-reaching cultural effect than can boyfriends. Just sayin’.
Also in the world as it is, healthy relationships between actual men are simply not organized around, or oriented toward, emotional longing or physical affection. Working together, organizing, and sacrificing toward a shared goal … these are masculine inclinations, which can be easily perceived in the hymn lyrics from the 19th century. But such masculine interests have given way, in more contemporary lyrics, to expressions of emotional neediness, to longing, and to the desire for physical affection.
My point here is simply to make the observation that natural masculine intuitions from 100-plus years ago have been gradually muted within the musical life of contemporary Christians. If the feminine sensibilities of those single mothers at the entrance to the dodgeball room were to become the basis for a contemporary Christian worldview, how would things be any different from the widely sung Hillsong United lyrics quoted above?
Now, it is possible that, in the Hillsong lyrics I utilized for this post, I have just cherry-picked some particularly egregious modern song. To which I offer another story that illustrates what seems to unambiguously support the idea of a modern ascendency of feminine concerns in popular Christian thought. I’m not proposing any of this as an exhaustive statistical study. I’m writing merely as a witness and observer and not as a researcher. But it is possible even for an observer to notice distinctive patterns as he wanders around paying attention.
A few weeks ago, I went to my local Christian bookstore. In that store, they have several bookshelves devoted to displaying the current bestsellers from the world of Christian publishing. As it happened, the vast majority of the bestsellers on display dealt either with Christian romance, or with the psycho-therapeutic benefits of the Christian life. The image of Christ as king, for whose cause one might willingly cast aside every other thing of value, has been replaced by the image of Christ as love interest, or as therapist. In either case, Jesus has become someone who exists primarily for the purpose of catering to our emotional needs.
All of this has me wondering if a significant part of contemporary Christianity suffers from a similar myopia to the one that afflicted George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. He was unable even to see, much less appreciate, what was really going on in his world. I sometimes wonder if some (many?) contemporary churches have started resembling something akin to single mothers: it isn’t that they have nothing to offer, but what they do have is inescapably lacking a masculine intuition for understanding our faith or the world around us. Perceiving contemporary faith largely through the lens of feminine sensibilities and concerns, these churches may be blunting the influence of historically masculine insights, preventing their members from benefiting from a masculine leavening to their perception of what it is that they are really up to, or up against – as happens to be the case just now.