A Note on the Criticism of the Stronger Men’s Conference

There has been no shortage of people criticizing the Stronger Men’s Conference, largely on the basis of the video linked above. There is clearly plenty to criticize here!

However, once again it has been disappointing to see how social media tends to facilitate fundamentally lazy, inattentive, reactive, self-serving, and incurious engagement with such phenomena, even for many people who could do a whole lot better. Hardly anyone makes any serious attempt to understand what such a video is arising from, although most presume that they already understand it. Rather, such a video merely becomes another means by which we can all reinforce our priors, publicly align ourselves against some supposed opposing viewpoints with some reasonable allies, and enjoy the shared frisson of outrage. It encourages a shallow impressionistic engagement with issues, and discourages a careful interpretative one.

It is important to be clear that my criticism here is not aimed primarily at particular persons, although they are worthy of some criticism for their failure to resist the tendencies of their environment of discourse. My concern is that social media itself is an environment that tends to encourage the production of careless analysis and the steady reinforcement of our prejudices. By situating us so firmly in an intensely social realm, it leads us to privilege judgment as a means of social alignment over judgment sought through understanding. The result is boring and entirely predictable judgments, rather than the stimulating quest for discovery that attempts at true understanding drive at.

The short-circuiting of the process of understanding occurs as knee-jerk judgments forestall any close attention to the phenomena to which they react. In cases like this the judgments seem to be immediate, precluding even any consideration of questions the phenomena might provoke in us. However, even when questions are asked, one seldom finds much thought devoted to them.

Asking a good question takes thought. It both requires and creates the sort of attention to a phenomenon that is illuminating. A good question produces investigation and discovery. A good question elicits things from the reality or person being questioned that a poor question does not.

For instance, you will find out a lot more about people if, instead of asking lots of lazy and dull information questions of them (What did you do today? What is your job? etc.), you ask questions that elicit their feelings, values, and purposes (What do you find most rewarding/challenging about your work? What was the highlight of your day? Where do you go to find encouragement? etc.). It doesn’t take much to change the sorts of questions we ask, but doing so is an expression of our interest in actually getting to know people, and the effort will often be noticed and appreciated. Also, when we start to ask such questions of people, we will soon discover that they are usually considerably more interesting than we might otherwise have given them credit for being. Whether it is a matter of listening to people solely for our cue to jump in with what we want to say or the selective attention whereby we pounce upon those things that seemingly validate our prejudices, while failing to attend to those that challenge them, we are constantly in danger of closing ourselves off from the possibility of genuine discovery or surprise.

We too easily presume that our questions are the right ones. However, asking the right questions of something isn’t easy. To ask a really good question, you need to spend some time just listening and being attentive. You need to ask other good investigative questions, questions designed to reveal what you do not yet understand. You need to train yourself to notice things that others miss. And, if we are truly asking good questions, we will almost certainly find that we will have our work cut out for us if we are to answer them well.

All of this having been said, I want to throw this open to people in the comments. Attending closely to the video and its contexts, what do you notice? What are some of the illuminating questions that we could be asking?

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.
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23 Responses to A Note on the Criticism of the Stronger Men’s Conference

  1. Alastair,
    If you had planned to remain in the US throughout April, would you have bought a ticket for this conference?
    And:
    If you were willing and able to attend this conference, and were invited to confer with the leaders, what questions would you ask them?
    (Have I got the wrong end of the stick about this? Were you inviting readers to post questions they might want to ask conference leaders themselves?)

    • Ha! No, I wouldn’t. I did consider staying on a few days to attend the MLK50 conference, but would avoid a conference like this like the plague.

      My interest isn’t really in the leaders. I doubt they would be interested in my thoughts. My real interest here is in us: what are we gaining from engaging with this? It is clearly worthy of mockery, but should we be the ones mocking it? An excess of mockery can easily render us proud and can cut us off from correction, so it must be handled with care. Being sparing in our expression of mockery can be important. Likewise with outrage.

      This conference really is taking place in a context far removed from my own. There are clearly deep problems with their approach, but they are someone else’s problems to deal with, not mine. See my thoughts here.

      What I was hoping for is reflection upon the deeper themes that this conference raises that can spark thoughtful reflection on our part. For instance, the focus on a masculinity ordered around spectacle and entertainment is something that we should think about, as we should consider the ways in which much Christianity has become ordered around entertainment and spectacle too. What sort of men does this produce?

  2. Very appreciative of your thoughtful piece, and the link to your thoughts made earlier. This is timely, since a few men from a few churches and I will be hosting a men’s retreat that partially takes aspects of John Eldridge’s Wild at Heart. Though there is good stuff there, I must admit we (I especially) do not want to conflate manhood with mere aggression, etc. Your question is the right one: “what sort of men does this produce?” Since we very much want to become more Christlike in character, disposition, thought and practice, etc. Though this is true for our Sisters in Christ as well, there is a unique burden of imitation of “Christ informed and inspired manhood” that every man must bear. Anyways – I am still in process, and very much appreciate your thoughts on this subject. https://moreenigma.wordpress.com/2018/03/21/what-does-it-mean-to-be-a-person/

  3. 🙂 I’m glad you’d avoid it like the plague – my first thought was that I wouldn’t want to be within a million miles of it!
    On the subject of mockery, I haven’t had any inclination to mock this show of strength. My thoughts are more about protection – if I were to encounter any such men on a dark night, I would be wishing I had a bodyguard. I may be concerned about being protected because I am a woman, but I wonder if there are masculine men of strong character who would feel a need from some self-protection if they were to encounter such men on a dark night? Where can we draw a line between being a strong man and just throwing one’s weight around?

  4. Thank you for the link. I liked the part between about 4 mins 30 secs and 4 mins 40 secs! I would be interested to know what others think about this video. Could the same message be conveyed in a different, and maybe more effective, way?

  5. Kyle says:

    It seems to me that the conference has a desire to connect the way the majority of American men are entertained (sports, risk-taking stunts, recreational machines) with men’s lives in the kingdom.

  6. mnpetersen37 says:

    You commented above to Christine:

    [M]ost of the supposed strong masculinity on display is there as a spectacle for entertainment value and is accompanied by an emphasis on God’s strength in our weakness as true strength. However, its presence in the form of entertainment and spectacle really is important to what is taking place.

    This makes me wonder if the displays of great strength serve, in part, to symbolize God; and the consumerism, to manifest part of what heaven (or the new earth) in which we will “fully…enjoy him forever”, as it were, consists of (though I doubt with anything like the reference to Westminster). I doubt that’s intended (though perhaps?) but the symbols often have more meaning than is consciously intended. (Also, that’s just pure speculation/throwing out a hypothesis.)

    • The video really needs to be properly explored, as its message really is a complex one, especially as the imagery plays off the words. It isn’t quite the extreme message that many are presuming from the video for the 2018 conference above. It doesn’t merely valorize some macho vision of masculinity: there are various visions of masculine strength held alongside each other. It also relativizes all of these, account the greatest and deepest strength, which is the strength of God.

      However, what exactly the strength of God is is never really clarified. ‘Strength’ remains something of a floating signifier, the sort of thing that will enable the football player to have Philippians 4:13 tattooed on his bicep and relate the strength of Christ to his prowess in his chosen sport. And the power of the spectacles of strength has the effect of framing the discussion of the strength of God by these demonstrations of a lesser strength.

  7. Joe says:

    Hillsong

  8. Andy says:

    Thought provoking.

    Not sure if this is what you are looking for, but here’s a go (values rather than ‘information’?) :

    1. What are you trying to convey through the video ?
    2. What are the values for the conference?
    3. What is your vision of male flourishing ?
    4. What is your vision for the conference?

    • Thanks, Andy!

      The questions don’t have to be addressed to the organizers of the conference, although those are some good ones to begin with. I was thinking more about questions that we could ask ourselves in trying to understand what the video represents.

  9. I’l have another try! I suspect that this is not the kind of question that you have in mind, Alastair, but this is a question I ask myself about the video:
    In the midst of all that noise, flashing lights, boisterous behaviour, and a man talking loudly into the mike about God, can anyone hear ‘the still, small voice?’

  10. This is not a question, just a thought: some of my former pupils said they could not concentrate on doing their homework without background noise (typically loud music), and then when it came to sitting exams in the silence of the exam room, they couldn’t concentrate – withdrawal symptoms? Maybe some people watching that video can concentrate on the spoken words better than I can!

    • jezbayes says:

      Good observation, Christine.

      When my 2 sons were preparing for key exams, I’d come into the room and find them revising over notes and text books, with TV on, mobiles on, and music on.
      I’d turn the TV off, go into grumpy old man mode, complain about too many focuses of attention, and walk out.
      Repeatedly!
      Both got great grades and did well/are doing well at Uni!

      So noise is now much more a default setting for our cultural wallpaper, meaning that this video seems very loud to my ears, but might need to be at such volume to crash through the din of C21st white noise, in order to get an audience for its real message.

      In other words, what annoys me might just be marketing appropriate for its target audience.

      Personally, I’m more concerned by some of presumptions that fly past as normative US Christian values, including a love of guns, which are taken as read in the promo.

      Are these going to be questioned in the content of the conference, or endorsed in such a way that confuses American values and Christian values?

  11. Hi Alastair,

    I appreciate your irenic and thoughtful reflections.

    It drives home to me again that the largely disembodied, behavioristic models of sanctification need to be shown a better way. I am troubled and have written a bit (book reviews of Wild at Heart, Prayer of Jabez, and a “men’s” book) on the silly and superficial models that are all too easy to criticize. Several men I know who raved about the life-changing nature of Wild at Heart boot camps and Promise Keepers remain immature as Paul said “in their thinking.”

    Historic Christianity has the resources to offer compelling models that address the whole person. My fear is that pastors and other Christian leaders are increasingly ignorant of the riches that largely remain buried.

    Grateful for your voice!

  12. Hmm. Is the conference attractive because it’s a) for men who are like the men portrayed and therefore want something ‘for people like me’, b) for men who aspire to be like the men portrayed and think the conference will help or c) for men who aspire to be like the men portrayed and want those who know them to know that that’s what they aspire to ie they want a conference that won’t embarrass them by having an unmacho image. In terms of a question to a participant – I noticed the ‘the Kingdom of God is within you’ line and (before even trying to explore further where the guy was trying to go with that) I’d like to ask participants who ‘you’ is?

    • Good questions.

      While there are displays of macho masculinity on the stage, however, the vast majority of the men are placed in the position of spectators, enjoying that masculinity vicariously. This is important to bear in mind. The average man attending such a conference is probably not the guy who plays a lot of macho sports, but is the guy who watches a lot of macho sports played by other men. The role that the spectacle plays in forming masculinity is crucially important to consider.

      Another thing to bear in mind is that we shouldn’t presume a straightforward alignment between either the conference spectacle and the beliefs and values of the church who hosts it or between the conference spectacle and the beliefs and values of the men who attend it. In my experience, churches and men tend to get weird when they start to talk about masculinity, because it is far from clear what masculinity is in the current social environment. The result is often the projection of a stereotype that causes everyone to act a bit strangely and ridiculously. Churches are trying to attract and engage men, which they often have a very bad track record of doing. Not knowing how to do it, they resort to an array of ridiculous cultural tropes. Like greetings cards for Father’s Day, it reveals an embarrassing failure to understand what manliness is or what the needs of men are.

      There are class dimensions of the issue here. Middle class men in middle class churches will often LARP a sort of working class masculinity in order to connect with an alienated demographic and to try to connect with a sense of masculinity that they feel alienated from themselves in their lives which lack meaningful dominion.

      Also, if you compare the ad for the conference with the actual introductory slot from the previous year’s conference that most of the images are taken from, and then compare that with videos of the regular Sunday morning teaching in that church, what you can see is a process that almost involves a series of bait and switches. You are set up for a highly macho event, but are ultimately going to be Jesus juked. The macho stuff is a façade to cover an underlying lack.

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