Review of Nate Pyle’s Man Enough

My review of Nate Pyle’s Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood has just been published over on The Gospel Coalition website.

Pyle’s discussion of “proving” manhood would’ve also benefited from more careful attention to the ways manhood can be defined in opposition to boyhood. Manhood is less about the traits that supposedly are or should be universally attendant upon maleness than it is about those characteristics that distinguish the mature man who has left boyhood behind him.

Pyle’s challenge to the direct pursuit of masculinity is in many respects salutary: manhood develops most appropriately when we pursue the kingdom of God rather than an idol of masculinity itself (and manhood differs from masculinity on account of its focus on maturity). However, the inadequacies of Pyle’s account—in part on account of his egalitarianism, in part on account of his focus on individual authenticity, and in part on account of his failure to attend closely to the form of maturity in and perfection of maleness—are most betrayed in its failure to give any shape to the concept of manliness. While, as Pyle argues, men and women aren’t called to different sets of virtues, their relation to and expression of these virtues do differ. Men and women may be compared to two different instruments playing the same notes, the difference between them immediately discernible by even the untrained ear, though often difficult to articulate.

What is “natural” to a human male isn’t simply what he does instinctively or spontaneously, but also those virtues in which male nature is perfected in his distinctive version of it. Pyle is right to oppose the hegemony of warrior manliness, but he errs in retreating from the concepts of male nature and corresponding manly virtues to the bare descriptive recognition that certain traits are more common among males.

Read the whole thing here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Christian Experience, Controversies, Culture, Ethics, Guest Post, My Reading, Reviews, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Review of Nate Pyle’s Man Enough

  1. Marc S says:

    In the review you say:

    ” “Proving” one’s masculinity, then, may be considerably less demanding in contexts where manhood is more about conforming to and participating in given modes of shared male cultural expression rather than a constant demand of “authentic” self-expression.”

    Perhaps, but perhaps not. Many traditional societies feature challenging manliness rituals, for example circumcision in early puberty, which emphasize the capacity to endure pain or to prove yourself physically in some way. Marking the transition to manhood by violent, transformative cultural rituals, or at least individually challenging ones, is quite common in cultures which have shared modes of male cultural expression. These of course are generally not Christian cultures but can we see the demanding nature of ‘proving’ one’s manhood as something tied to a deeper natural aspect of masculinity rather than as something entirely created by modern anxieties over authenticity?

  2. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    Roy Baumeister has written that a common baseline for the transition from boyhood to manhood could be summed up as you produce more than you consume, enough to be able to contribute to the common good. In many a society that could be construed as able to produce enough to support a family but not necessarily always or across the board.

    Baumeister has also noted that what is unique about males in male social units is the disposability of the individual. An organization can survive the absence of any one man whereas in family settings the absence of one family member constitutes an often irreversible tragic loss. The paradox of the warrior masculinity paradigm is that all the cultivation of individual manly warrior-ness goes hand in hand with being able to lose a battle and be forgotten as an individual fighting for a given cause. It may be part of why the quest for the warrior an identity in a society is so deeply flawed is that in non-Western societies there might be more direct appreciation of male disposability. A man can reconcile himself to this if the institutions are durable but in the US institutional loyalty may be a very, very low priority so the warrior ethos is misunderstood as a manifestation of individual identity rather than an outworking of institutional loyalty.

    I’ve joked over the years that we have a society in which if you are not sexually active and in a relationship American society has no script for you. Secular writers have noted in film criticism that a pervasive concern is that we’ve had a sexual liberation movement and now that sexuality is divorced at every level from the responsibilities of childrearing the pop culture crisis is how to know when or if a boy has become a man. Apatow has probably more directly addressed this than others. But when I peruse, say, Jane Austen novels, it seems that other societies even in Western history had scripts for men and women to follow who were for economic or physical reasons considered unfit for pairing up. That seems ot be conspicuously absent in contemporary American society. If you’re lucky you can build a social identity on, say, a hobby or a club or church affiliation. But society does not tell you how to self-actualize, just that you should. 🙂

  3. mnpetersen37 says:

    In the Concept of Education in Islam, al Attas argues that Islam is superior to other religions, in part, because Islam, unlike any other religions, offers a concrete model of the man for men to follow, and so gives form to their attempts to concretely live out their manhood. This may sound puzzling: What about Jesus: are we not to imitate Him, and be conformed to His image? But that response only highlights al Attas’ point. To give form to our lives, we need a thick description of a life. Muslims have a very thick description of the Prophet’s life–for instance, Muslim men know what a beard should be like because they know what Muhammed’s was like–but the form of life Jesus used to live out his manhood is described only in exceedingly thin terms–and when we can reasonably make conjectures, we are not to imitate him. Should we wear tefillin? Small phylacteries? Wear tzitzit? What color should they be, blue (like Karaite Jews wear), or white (like most Jews wear)? What should our beard look like? How should our familial structure be ordered? When should we marry? What form should our prayers take? etc. etc. None of these questions are given anything remotely like an answer, and so the Christian seeking to live out a manhood in imitation of Christ is left with nothing.

    That is, while it may make sense for a Muslim define their manhood through imitation of the prophet, there is no useful, that is, specific, guidance for manhood in “the pursuit of Christlike humanness as a naturally diverse group of beloved sons”, only generic, thin, principles, applicable to anyone, in any society. None of the questions regarding the form of life are answered, in the least. And more often than not, we are specifically forbidden to imitate Christ in the sort of specifics that are needed to give form to manhood: He was a Jew, and kept whatever version of halakhah there was at his time; we are not Jews, and are not to keep the halakhah.

    This is, of course, a feature of Christianity: The gospel is for the nations, and so we are to imitate Christ, without abandoning our people, and the forms of life given to us, as a member of this people. When a Greek became Christian, he was not required to follow the halakhah, and when a Cherokee became a Christian, he was not required (by God) to conform to European standards for masculinity, domesticity, production, etc.

    But, I think the comparison between Christianity and Islam (and Judaism) does show how useless, and indeed, counter-productive, calls to define our manhood in terms of imitation of Christ are. We are left considerable room for cultural (not just individual) improvisation of gendered norms, and so the life of Christ is without content relevant to the specific form our manhood, or womanhood, should take. The imitation of Christ is, when used to define manhood or womanhood, contentless. We are instead to fill in the specifics from our own culture. And so, if we are asking what form manhood should take because we find our culture lacking, claiming that our manhood should be defined by imitation of Christ is to claim nothing.

    (Which is perhaps why his solution seems to just repeat modern formulas of gender equality, and individual expression. He gives us a contentless model of manhood–the imitation of Christ–and so supplies the missing content from our larger cultural milieu.)

    There’s the additional danger that if we do manage to fill in the details, we fill them in with concrete forms from our own culture or society, but, forgetting that they are ours and not Christ’s, read those details as the imitation of Christ, and, effectively making Christ white, or modern, or… expect other people to conform to our image.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      Hi Matt,
      This is a thoughtful post.
      Re: ‘…the imitation of Christ is, when used to define manhood or womanhood, contentless’ – although I doubt if Jesus Christ set out to ‘redefine’ manhood and womanhood, I do think that some of his teaching seemed to point his male and female listeners in a new direction, for instance when he told men that they could not dispose of their wives simply by saying ‘I divorce you’! I think it is likely that, as Nate Pyle’s Christian faith deepened, he questioned some of the current cultural attitudes to manhood and realised that for men to weep and be ‘vulnerable’ was not necessarily ‘un-masculine’, and also not un-Christlike. Cultural norms are very complex and can sometimes be quite localised ( as with the weather, where it can sometimes rain on one side of the road, but not on the other side!) and some cultural norms can jar with us as Christians. I believe that our questioning of cultural norms can increase our longing to come closer to God and His will for our lives and that this can inspire us to study the scriptures more and to pray more.
      I haven’t read Nate Pyle’s book, though I have read some reviews of it and I have listened to the Mere Fidelity podcast on it, so I will just add now that when I saw the subtitle ‘How Jesus redefines manhood’ I thought, ‘Really?!’

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Alastair, I did not address you in the above post because you are still on your break, but on reflection, I think it’s a bit weird not to address you, so here I am addressing you – thank you for your interesting and balanced review of Nate Pyle’s book.

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