There is a genuine and ongoing crisis in masculine identity. “What does it mean to be a man?” is a real and troubling question for a host of struggling men—old and young alike. Blogs, books, and men’s ministries alike attempt to present a semblance of answers into these critical questions, and yet it seems that the need for identity continues unabated. Men crave the fulfillment of their masculinity. Men are struggling to achieve it. I, ever curious to expand my understanding of these issues, recently on recommendation checked out from my local library a copy of Jack Donovan’s The Way of Men (Dissonant Hum, 2012). The experience of reading the book might be best described as unusual, because while I spent the majority of the book feeling mildly unsettled, there was one insight which neatly encapsulated one of the key problems in the current crisis in masculinity.
Donovan’s intention is to attempt to bypass all the expressly cultural influences into masculinity and arrive at an absolute, genuine core of what it means to be a man. He does this first by framing masculinity within two special conditions, those of biology and the survival scenario. Viewed in light of these conditions, he proposes that true manhood is defined by what he calls “tactical virtues”—strength, courage, mastery, and honor, each of which is given a special, nontraditional definition and treatment in light of the two conditions. The result is an interesting, if deeply flawed, exercise in examining the roots of masculinity, and while there was certainly something masculine about the book, it nevertheless read as a kind of caricature, a cartoonish and distorted picture of manhood. A certain measure of this distortion comes from the two conditions that limit the experiment, which in turn might account for the failure of the overall project. First of all, the survival scenario cannot be practically necessary to manhood. The vast majority of civilized man has lived outside of the survival scenario, and even those civilizations which lived at the edge longed in themselves for peace and security. To put it more succinctly, survivalism is not an end in itself, but a means toward a deeper security. In this, Donovan in focusing on the “tactical” side of the matter omits the deeper desires for peace and security. Men may wish to dominate others, but only as a means to secure some other end, and few but the most severe tyrants ever crave dominance for the sake of dominance. Plus, I might suggest that any book that has to appeal to a zombie apocalypse to give definition to manhood is bound to produce a manhood as unreliable as the zombie apocalypse. Second, by focusing on evolutionary biology, Donovan neglects the reality that humans—men—are more than our biology. Yes, I have an animal portion—a survival instinct, passions and desires—but I also believe that my humanity is something that transcends my biology. I think we might agree to this even independently of the Christian witness to which I ascribe, but Christianity reinforces this further. A real man is never expressed purely by his biology, but by his biology as it is made to serve some other end or purpose. I express the apex of my gendered humanity when I have learned how to make my body serve other ends—not when I serve the ends of my body. Donovan’s masculinity in many ways reduces me to my instincts, and I find this inadequate and troubling.
When I had completed the book, in curiosity I looked up some reviews online. There I discovered, much to my astonishment, that Donovan is himself a homosexual but one who is highly contemptuous of any effeminacy. Another of his books, titled Androphilia, outlines his core philosophy of man-love (I haven’t read it). In some ways this explained some of the dissonance I felt while reading the book—Donovan’s perspectives are born from a radically different starting point than my own, and it is not unreasonable to deduce that Donovan’s love of a kind of “pure” manhood is indicative of a form of idolatry—worship of the image and likeness of maleness. In many ways The Way of Men is the thoughts of a man who worships biological masculinity.
However, sandwiched in the midst of some 150 pages of self-confident but troubling masculinistic rhetoric is about 20 pages that focus on a really compelling question. The section was in fact so compelling that it might have made the whole book worth reading. In it, Donovan attempts to outline a difference between “being a good man” and “being good at being a man.” As I read, and reflected on this, I came to think that the distinction is terribly important. “Being a good man” is something, in fact, that any human can do. The virtues asked of good men are virtues that can be asked of women and children alike (honoring commitments, telling the truth, etc.). There is nothing particularly “masculine” about being a good man. However, being good at being a man is a different idea altogether—one we should note is also more culturally defined. We understand this difference most clearly in contrast. There are good men who are not good at being men (we might note virtuous men who cannot light a fire or set up a tent), and there are men good at being men who are not necessarily good men (survivalists who murder). Naturally, being an outdoorsman is not the only way to be good at being a man, although at our present cultural juncture it is one of the characteristics of “masculinity” which we identify with being good at being a man.
Donovan’s contrast is useful because it gets to the heart of the present crisis in masculinity. What does it really mean to be good at being a man? My Christian faith is very good at telling me how to be a good man—simply a good person, in fact—but it has struggled to define with the same clarity what it means to be good at being a man. Donovan’s overall thesis is alluring precisely because his answer to the question of masculine identity answers at the area of need. He is, in other words, attempting to answer the right question, and that sets him on a different kind of ground than other thinkers. Nevertheless, I disagree with his conclusions, not only for the aforementioned reasons, but also because I ascribe to a theological outlook. Whatever it means to be good at being a man, it needs to mean this in the context of a Creator God who created manhood for His own good purposes. Being good at being a man means for me to be good at being a man after the pattern of manhood that He desires. Biology thus submits to purpose.
I plan to write further on this issue, but for now I want to observe that books which treat of masculinity and spirituality are often fraught with difficulties. One of these difficulties is in starting from the wrong place—the books answer the wrong questions about masculinity. A further difficulty is in discerning the boundary between culture and revelation. Because the exercise is so challenging, and because there is such a deeply needy gap felt by masculine identity, almost any thought which rises to fill the space can be given weight and appear meaningful simply because there is so little to offer meaning. Proverbs 27:7 says that “To the starving man even what is bitter tastes sweet,” and books like Donovan’s offer an answer to the crisis men feel about masculinity. Because of the intensity of the need, even a false or misleading answer to the question of masculinity is regarded by men as superior to no answer or the answers offered by culture. Men are hungry to know what it means to be a man, and there is a significant need for Christian men to examine and explore this question from the right starting point. Donovan is right that goodness in itself will be insufficient to answer our biological summons to masculinity. Beyond that, there is still much work to be done in discovering and expressing a truly Godly manhood.