Toxic Masculinity?


Nancy Pearcy and Anthony Esolen have recently written excellent books countering t he cultural attack on men and masculinity. This four-page summary of those books is very worth reading. 
Notes on Books by Gerard Reed
February 2024 Number Three Hundred Seventy-four
Himself childless, C.S. Lewis still wrote: “Children are not a distraction from more important
work. They are the most important work.” Yet one of the more distressing developments during the past
half-century is the failure of men to embrace their traditional roles as fathers of children and providers/
protectors of women. Whether or not this is the result of men simply discarding their responsibilities or of
women emasculating them is highly debated, but Nancy Pearcey gives valuable views in The Toxic War on
Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, c. 2023;
Kindle Edition). Pearcey has written numerous highly-praised books, including Total Truth: Liberating
Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity and How Now Shall We Live? (coauthored with the late Chuck
Colson). She was praised by The Economist as “America’s pre-eminent evangelical Protestant female
intellectual,” and is currently a professor and scholar in residence at Houston Christian University.
Though reared in a Christian home Pearcey struggled with her faith—in large part because of her
highly-respected but abusive father. In high school she discarded Christianity and became a committed
feminist. Then, wandering about Europe in search of something to live for, she stumbled into Francis
Schaeffer’s L’Abri. There, “for the first time I discovered that there exists something called Christian
apologetics, and I was stunned. I had no idea that Christianity could be supported by logic and reasons and
good arguments. Eventually I found the arguments persuasive and I reconverted to Christianity” (p. 14).
This move prompted her to rethink her feminist agenda in the light of biblical truth. “So in a sense,” she
says, “I’ve been writing this book my entire life. As a little girl, I wondered how a man could sometimes
be so wonderful and at other times so cruel. As an adult, I have had to spend literally decades thinking
through how to define a healthy, biblical concept of masculinity. What is the God-given pattern for
manhood? How did Western culture lose it? And how can we recover it?” (p. 14)
She begins by noting that if masculinity is considered “toxic”—as it is by many—the best solution is
emasculation! Rip the maleness out of men! Thus in 2018 the American Psychological Association (APA)
issued guidelines for counseling men and boys, denouncing “traditional masculinity ideology” as
“psychologically harmful.” Influential gender studies professors justify hating men simply because they’re
men. There’s even a hashtag, #KillAllMen and books titled I Hate Men, The End of Men, and Are Men
Necessary? From many cultural sectors comes a strong message: masculinity, like arsenic, is toxic! But
Pearcey wants to celebrate what’s good about men and help them live up to the goodness of their creation.
She says: “Because of testosterone, men are typically larger, stronger, and faster than women. In general,
they are also more physical, more competitive, and more risk-taking. We need to affirm these God-given
traits as good when used to honor and serve others” (p. 18). In fact: “We should not make the mistake of
equating masculinity with men’s bad behavior. A biblical worldview tells us that men were originally
created to live by the ideal of the Good Man, exercising traits such as honor, courage, fidelity, and selfcontrol.
A healthy society is one that teaches and encourages a God-centered view of masculinity” (p. 22).
The Good Man, Pearcey insists, generally attends church! Contrary to the stereotypical patriarch—an
angry man ruling the family with an iron hand and traumatizing women and children—the best research
shows that devout, conservative evangelicals, regularly going to church, are the least abusive, most
admirable males in America. Citing Brad Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia,
director of the National Marriage Project, and author of Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity
Shapes Fathers and Husbands, she argues that the more devout the man the better he is as husband and
father. Wilcox says: “‘the happiest of all wives in America are religious conservatives. . . . Fully 73
percent of wives who hold conservative gender values and attend religious services regularly with their
husbands have high-quality marriages’” (p. 39).
Though American evangelicals may never have heard of St John Chrysostom, they’re living out
his admonition, given 1600 years ago: “Let everything take second place to care for our children, our
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bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Rooted in New Testament teachings,
Ancient Church fathers such as Chrysostom proposed a “mutuality in conjugal rights. It was a symmetry
‘at total variance . . . with pagan culture,’ writes sociologist Rodney Stark” (p. 53). Christian women
enjoyed a much higher status in the church than in pagan society and played a significant role in its
development. As the “head” of the family the father should act as a servant seeking others’ well-being
rather than a tyrant exercising his authority. He should sacrificially enable his wife and children to find
their calling and exercise their spiritual gifts. Such men are, Wilcox says, “soft patriarchs.”
Unlike conservative Christian men, however, American males are struggling and there is, Pearcey
thinks, a toxic side to their worldview and behavior. To understand why she conducts an in-depth historical
search for some reasons and basically finds the Industrial Revolution largely responsible. As long as
families worked together on farms or cottage industries, most men took responsibility for their families and
lived rightly. During the colonial era, in New England “the ideal for manhood was not personal ambition
or self-fulfillment but the subordination of one’s private interests for the common good. As historian
Gordon Wood explains, men ‘were expected to suppress their private wants and interests and develop
disinterestedness—the term the eighteenth century most often used as a synonym for civic virtue’” (p. 77).
They were urged to be “Christian gentlemen.” Hundreds of religious publications in the 17th century
praised men for being, one historian says, “‘forgiving, magnanimous, benevolent, virtuous, moderate, selfcontrolled,
and a worthy citizen’” (p. 101).
As they moved from farms to factories, however, American men embraced a more competitive,
acquisitive philosophy and relied less on Christian principles. Rather than embracing moral standards they
were, in the 19th century one historian says, urged to be ambitious and strong in a competitive marketplace.
“By taking husbands and fathers out of the home, industrialization created the material conditions that
made it more difficult to fulfill a biblical ideal of manhood. Men were no longer physically present enough
to be fully engaged husbands and fathers. They spent most of their time in the public realm, which was
growing increasingly secular. The Industrial Revolution thus became a catalyst for the acceptance of
secular views of masculinity” (p. 101). With their men working away from home the women, almost by
default, became the teachers and exemplars of virtue.
So, as Frances Parkes said in 1825, the “world corrupts, home should refine.” Thirty years later
Ralph Waldo Emerson would hail women as the “civilizers of mankind.” Harriet Beecher Stowe urged
wives to “mother” their husbands for in time, she said, “the true wife becomes a mother to her husband; she
guides him, cares for him, teaches him, and catechizes him in the nicest way possible.” Given these
cultural upheavals, women effectively took charge of families, schools and churches. By the end of the
century they constituted nearly 90 percent of Sunday morning church goers. They generally had minimal
doctrinal concerns but enthusiastically championed various reform movements—urging women’s suffrage,
the abolition of slavery, and closing “down taverns, saloons, brothels, and gambling houses.” However
well-intended, these reform endeavors easily alienated men because they generally singled out male vices.
“As historian Mary Ryan points out, ‘Almost all the female reform associations were implicit
condemnations of males; there was little doubt as to the sex of slave masters, tavern-keepers, drunkards,
and seducers’” (p. 124).
Deeply impacted by their fathers working away from home and their mothers taking charge of it
were young men—fatherless sons. More than a century ago Frances Willard, president of the Woman’s
Christian Temperance Union, saw this as a serious problem needing attention, saying “God is the father, but
how many families there are where the prototype of the divine is practically absent from Sunday to
Sunday.” When mothers tried to replace fathers their sons often rebelled, preferring to be a “bad” boy
rather than a feminized weakling. Consequently they were seen by some women as “Goths and Vandals”—
little barbarians! Boys read books celebrating cowboys, soldiers, and frontiersmen who found solace in
wild, solitary places. They found in the Boy Scouts an organization appealing to their “Noble Savage”
urge. The novelist Henry James spoke for many men in his novel The Bostonians (1886). In the words of
his male protagonist, Ransom: “‘The whole generation is womanized, the masculine tone is passing out of
the world; it’s a feminine, hysterical, chattering, canting age.’ Ransome announces his intention to recover
‘the masculine character, the ability to dare and endure’” (p. 146).
Throughout the past century men have struggled to rightly recover their masculine character.
They’ve done so amidst the growing problem of fatherless boys that has now become a crisis. Neither the
government nor the schools nor the churches have figured out how to restore the family to health. The
greatest challenge we face may very well be getting men to be good fathers. To do so will entail
significant changes and sacrifices. Work needs to be reduced to a secondary vocation, making fathering a
man’s real work. Taking time to attend church—and support her activities helping children grow up—must
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become a priority. If Pearcey’s right there’s little to hope for in the secular world. But if Christians heed
the call they can make a difference and become Good Men.
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Whereas Pearcey still upholds many egalitarian aspects of her early feminism, Anthony Esolen
sharply attacks it in No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Washingon: Regnery
Gateway, c. 2022; Kindle Edition.). The acclaimed translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy and one of the best
Catholic writers in America, Esolen writes “to return to men a sense of their worth as men, and to give to
boys the noble aim of manliness, an aim which is their due by right” (p. vii). He urges us to look around
and see how much men have accomplished. “Every road you see was laid by men. Every house, church,
every school, every factory, every public building was raised by the hands of men” (p. x). Wherever hard,
necessary, physical things get done men (not women) do them. “The whole of your civilization rests upon
the shoulders of men who have done work that most people will not do—and that the physically weaker sex
could not have done” (p. x). Men have nothing to apologize for!
“Acquit yourselves like men,” Paul said in I Corinthians 16:13. The Greek text is quite clear, for
andrizeisthe means, literally, “Be men!” Jerome’s Vulgate is equally clear: “viriliter agite, ”Be men!”
Many modern translations, however, sooth feminist sensibilities by simply saying “be courageous” or “be
brave.” The admonition to men is erased! So it goes even in the world of Bible translators! To those
who label masculinity toxic, Esolen replies: “Who is toxic? The word suggests something hidden, secret,
sly. Imagine someone sprinkling a bit of strychnine in the soup—not enough to kill, but certainly enough
to make the diner sick. That is similar to what is being done to boys in our schools and in mass
entertainment. They are told that there is something wrong with them because they are not like girls. They
are also told that girls can do all of the physical things they can, and perhaps do them better—an absurd
falsehood. Telling boys these things is poisonous, and I daresay it is intended to be so: those who speak
this way want the boys to be weaklings, to despise their own sex, to doubt their natural and healthy
inclinations” (p. xiii). Indeed, shouts Esolen, stop poisoning our boys! Stop the teachers trying to make
our boys little girls! Enough!
Begin by dealing honestly with the facts. Men are physically stronger—much stronger—than
women. Hundreds of high school boys run faster than female world champions. “The strongest and fastest
women in the world would be pulverized by a men’s professional football team. You would not ask the
score. You would ask whether the women could stop a single play from scrimmage. You would ask
whether the women ended up in the hospital. In fact, the best female athletes in the world would be made
into mincemeat by a half-decent high school boys’ team. They would be in danger of serious harm,
because the boys would be heavier than they are, taller, faster, stronger, and with much more of that quicksurge
muscle action that packs power into the shortest impulses” (p. 3). Proving his point, recently “the
Australian women’s World Cup soccer team was trounced, seven to two, by an under-sixteen boys’ team,
and a similar thing happened to the American women’s team that actually won the World Cup” (p. 3).
As in athletics, wherever you find mechanical systems sustaining modern technology you’ll
almost certainly find that men designed and continue to maintain them. So, Esolen says: “If you call a
plumber to deal with a sewer pipe that has backed up into your basement, it is a practical certainty that it is
going to be a man, because the sheer strength required to deal with the valve rusted shut or with a section of
pipe that has to be cut or muscled into place is like a threshold” (p. 40). Sadly enough, our nation’s
infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) is fraying and needs strong men to do the hard work necessary to repair
it. Where are we going to find such men when our boys are all told to go to college and get a desk job?
Women can’t do it and we’re not rearing boys to respect and embrace hard work. It’s as if we think the
world will run by “magic,” maintaining our comforts without requiring the hard work necessary to make it
Men often accomplish great things because they’re team players. Eccentric geniuses certainly
operate alone, but men typically want to get together to accomplish things. Feminists frequently complain
about the “old boys clubs” that keep women from succeeding, but in fact men simply like to be with other
men. They like to plan projects. They launch hunting expeditions, as did Sioux men hunting bison,
because working together is the only way to succeed. “Out of the individual strengths and wills of the
different men, you must create a new thing, a hunting party, whose members at work are less like separate
individuals than like the limbs of a body” (p. 64). The same instinct is at work when neighborhood boys
come together to play football. Esolen notes: “For a very long time now, there have been girls’ basketball
teams, and yet you rarely see a group of girls spontaneously organizing themselves for a game on a
basketball court or spontaneously organizing themselves for a pickup game of softball. Boys will invent
more games in a year than girls have adopted from boys in fifty. It is in their nature to do so” (p. 70).
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As they organize teams men embrace hierarchies. Some men will be in charge of others, some
skills will be more important than others. There’s no egalitarian ethos on a sandlot baseball field or the
NFL draft day! “That men form hierarchies without embarrassment, and without necessarily destroying the
real and important equality among them, is one of the most astonishing things we can say about them; it is
something so common and so obvious that we do not even notice it. But I say: if you do not have
hierarchy, you will not only fail at civilization, you will fail even to have a strong tribe of savages in the
woods. You will not kill the bison” (p. 72). A quarterback orders ten other players to carry out their
assignment. Should every man in the huddle be given equal opportunity to call the play? Should every
workman erecting a cathedral be allowed to design the building? Effective teams can never be egalitarian.
Yet, apart from the task, such men may very well be best friends, comrades committed to treating each
other as equals! A team’s quarterback and cornerback have hugely different roles to play on the football
field but may be inseparable friends attending the same church where the cornerback is considered an
outstanding Bible teacher giving guidance to the team’s leader. In a criminal trial a male prosecutor and his
antagonist (the defense attorney) fight for their assigned side, then go out to dinner together with no injured
egos. They illustrate “the masculine capacity to set things in proper emotional compartments, to bracket, to
feel and express great passion at one moment and then to set it aside as if it were irrelevant” (p. 94).
To Esolen: “The miracle of culture and of civilization is the miracle of the transformation and
redirection of masculine energy from the willful self to the team, the work crew, the school, and the army—
for the sake of the home and the women at the center of the home, and, in the end, for the sake of the city
and the nation” (p. 86). So throughout the centuries men have worked together to build great things. Allmale
Renaissance art studies gave us Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, and thousands of artists all
over Europe. We should be grateful! That women were frequently excluded from such groups doesn’t
trouble Esolen: “No apologies, then, for the masculine institutions of the past. Instead, we should question
our refusing to grant to men and boys the opportunity or even the legal permission to form groups that are
natural to them and that have proved to be so marvelously productive” (p. 87). When boys build tree
houses with signs saying “No Girls Allowed” let them be! It’s part of the process of becoming a man as
well as granting the “freedom of association” guaranteed by the Constitution.
Nowhere are strong men needed more than at home. Yet it’s everywhere evident that families are
jeopardized by the shifting sands of modernity. To Gabriel Marcel there was an “inexpressible sadness
which emanates from great cities,” something rooted in “a self-betrayal of life “bound up in the most
intimate fashion with the decay of the family.” In part this results from a feminist ideology saturated with
by envy. One of the seven deadly sins, “envy is always looking cross-eyed—that is what the Latin invidia
means—at something good that someone else enjoys, and wishing to ruin the enjoyment. It is spiritual
poison for weaklings. Specifically, envy is the spiritual poison for feminists who see what healthy men and
women enjoy, do not themselves enjoy it, and therefore want to ruin it for everyone else. We can see this in
academe. Feminist scholars have discovered no neglected female Chaucer, so they must tear the actual
Chaucer down and make sure that nobody else learns from him, calling him a racist and a rapist and
whatnot. They cannot of themselves produce a Shakespeare, so they must tear him down or wrench his
meaning away from the Christian faith he so often portrays in dramatic action. And on it goes. They have
discovered no neglected female Titian, no neglected female Bach. There are none to discover” (p. 100). So
too they hate traditional family and want to destroy it.
We need fathers—patriarchs—who rule wisely. When they’re absent, boys turn aggressive and
girls long for what’s gone. Both go bad. “If women lead men,” as is often the case today, Esolen asks,
“where are the happy female bosses—and the joyful men they lead? . . . . Why do people in an egalitarian
wonderland not sing their love of the sexes? The truth is, as C. S. Lewis says, that love does not speak the
language of equality. It speaks the language of gratitude and superiority, of awe at the unique
characteristics that make the beloved different from oneself. . . . When fathers go absent, do not expect
women to take their place” (p. 103). We “can have patriarchy or not. If not, you will either suffer anarchy
—moral, intellectual, and civic—or you will suffer tyranny in your attempt to keep the anarchy from
ruining everything . . . You can have fathers who govern, or else you can have unattached and
unaccountable males who take a dismal pleasure in doing nothing or a ferocious pleasure in destroying
things—or sometimes alternate between one and then the other” (p. 105). We need patriarchs. Nothing
else works. It’s rooted in our nature as human beings. No apologies!
Esolen brings to his discussion a deeply-informed knowledge of the West’s best literature. Citing
Dante and Chaucer and Shakespeare and C.S. Lewis enable him to draw upon the wisdom of our
civilization in building his case for men. He also writes as a committed Christian, knowing the truth
revealed in creation as well as Scripture. He’s off-ostracized for speaking the truth as he sees it—and he
doubtlessly overstates some of his view—but he’s worth reading and heeding. No apologies!