Near the end of the 2009 movie Zombieland, Woody Harrelson’s character shares his deep grief at losing his three-year-old son. Tallahassee, the gun-slinging warrior who kills zombies by opening his car door into their faces while driving, is distraught. A montage of loving father-son memories plays on the screen for a moment, then cuts to the tearful Tallahassee remarking that he hasn’t cried this much since seeing the movie Titanic, while drying his eyes with wads of cash.
Juxtaposition is a comedic device to create irony, and Tallahassee is a fascinating exhibit of irony, particularly masculine irony. Other characters depend on him to survive the zombie apocalypse, but he has a craving for Twinkies everywhere he goes; he is needed for romantic advice, but borders on impotence in his search for the little pastries. Tallahassee appears to be a man’s man in a world of contagious flesh-eaters, but his masculinity is restrained and very much adorned with irony.
Such ironic characterization isn’t just useful for comedic fiction. Many men are living out ironic forms of masculinity in order to function in American culture today, and this is especially true for White men.
Given the popularity of Hollywood’s masculine movie characters, such statements may sound strange. Jason Bourne, John Wick, Jack Reacher and any number of characters played over recent decades by Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzeneggar, and Liam Neeson are not at all adorned with irony. Such characters are pure, stoic-warrior archetypes. They may display compassion or sadness at times, but any such emotion only serves to heighten the eventual and inevitable fiery displays of brute force. They are what we might call ‘mascu-philic’ or ‘mascu-manic:’ over the top, unrestrained embodiments of masculine force; a one-man-army capable of libidinal violence at every turn.
The Real World
But none of these characters exist in the real world. Neither do any of the superheroes of the Marvel cinematic universe, many of whom are somewhat more restrained and empathetic but just as capable of vast bodily destruction. For modern men, suprahuman feats of power are entertaining screenplay, but nothing more.
This is true even when we consider real heroes of the past. Mel Gibson’s William Wallace in Braveheart and Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator are characters whose feats were based on truth at some level, and Alexander the Great, the peak example of a mascu-philic warrior-hero, is not a figment of the imagination of timorous historians. But none of these men lived in the era of #metoo and #blacklivesmatter. It is the world of twenty-first century America that men today live in and must navigate.
If we are to find a model of masculinity that is accessible and useful for our world today, we are not likely to find it in the White House, nor on Capitol Hill. Trump, as the ‘most masculine President ever,’ did nothing but expose and amplify the problem of finding a coherent model of masculinity. And Biden, along with other more sober male legislators, must operate in political theater and twenty-four hour news cycles, relentlessly accused of posturing and playing to their base.
We must understand how pervasive this problem is. Mascu-philia in televised entertainment exists, not just as a fun, fictional diversion, but as a symptom of craving for masculine validation. Almost every time Troy Landry shoots an alligator in the reality show, Swamp People, the shot is dramatized in fast-cut sequences, and the alligator is described with a litany of hyperbolic adjectives. Every episode of Yukon Men involves hunting caribou or fishing or trapping for the express reason that the mens’ families need to survive the long winter, even though the town of Tanana has a general store which is always conspicuously absent from the show.
It’s a masculinity that craves validation but cannot be lived up to. Any attempt at displaying pure masculinity in the world of selfies, meme generators, and TikTok is automatically at risk of becoming a parody. But a masculinity that allows for irony is a masculinity that can play along with self-parody, and thus appears to be more authentic and accessible to real men than entertainment’s mascu-philic options.
This is why so many ironic male characters in entertainment are so popular. Michael Scott, Homer Simpson, Bill and Ted, Ferris Bueller, Jack Sparrow, Napoleon Dynamite, Inigo Montoya, The Blues Brothers, Derek Zoolander, virtually any Adam Sandler character, and perhaps the most ironic male character of all, Kirk Lazarus, played by Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, all depict ironic manhood and may well exceed the mascu-philic characters in popularity.
Masculinity and Restraints
The world of entertainment provides men with two choices: the pure Alexandrian warrior-hero or the Tallahassian man of irony. The ‘real’ world, on the other hand, of politicians, tech-professionals, pastors, and the like, is full of men who seem to refrain from any overt or self-conscious display of masculinity. Mark Driscoll’s popularity was, of course, an exception to this, but a short-lived one.
Even less educated male-dominated professions, like plumbing, policing and the armed forces, seem to have lost something of the esteem and masculine veneer they once had. The Joe Rogan-listening, MMA-watching, bro culture does not consciously embrace irony, but is rather ironically restrained in that their displays of physical strength are rarely anything more than display, accomplishing nothing of significance. Even the Capitol insurrection, with its inexcusable violence, was characterized by live-streaming, selfies, and a shirtless, face-painted ‘shaman’ wearing fur-and-horns, who demanded to be served organic food after he was arrested. Alexander the Great would not have been impressed.
We simply do not have a modern model of masculinity that is without some kind of restraint, and the prevalence of irony is proclaiming rather loudly that American men today are confused and not particularly comfortable with the world we live in.
For Christians, this would seem an obvious opportunity to proclaim Christ as the greatest-ever model of masculinity. Proclaiming Christ to confused men is important, but as Kristin Kobes Du Mez demonstrates in her book, Jesus and John Wayne, Christian men do not have a particularly strong history in doing this well. It is necessary for us to get a deeper understanding of how American masculinity got to this place so that our proclamation of Christ is truly accessible and understandable and appealing to the men and women who hear our proclamation. The conditions of masculinity have changed (to use Charles Taylor’s manner of insight), and we must understand those conditions so that our solutions for recovering biblical manhood do not miss the mark, which many sadly do.
The Problem with Masculinity in the Armed Forces
The one socially acceptable outlet for men who enjoy showing off physical feats of strength without the need for irony is serving in the armed forces. It is an outlet that prioritizes action over display, but its heroes are not as widely venerated today as in the past and there is a distinct reason for this which greatly influences masculinity today.
In his book, The Mask of Command, John Keegan surveys the war-making achievements of four major leaders in history; Alexander the Great, Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington), Ulysses S. Grant, and Adolf Hitler. The story of these commanders, as Keegan tells it, is one of increasing distance over time from the field of battle. Where Alexander the Great led his armies from the front, making himself a risk-taking leader that soldiers would follow across continents, successive commanders after Alexander moved ever further back from the front lines, to the point where Hitler was directing battles from hundreds of miles away.
Alexander’s leadership was powerful, but his manner of heroism was ultimately restrictive because of the brief lifecycle of leaders that necessarily results from such war-making:
No development from [heroic society] – political, cultural, intellectual or economic – was possible as long as its elite’s preoccupations were consumed by the repetitive and ultimately narcissistic activity of combat. All societies which achieved escape from the constrictions of heroism did so by separating the hero from the rest of society and according equal or superior prestige to functions more creative than his – those of the judge, scholar, diplomat, politician and merchant. (312-313).
The move away from the heroic warrior society spurred cultural development, but it also multiplied challenges for rulers who continued to call soldiers to sacrifice their lives in battle:
[T]he eternal questions voice themselves again: ‘Where is our leader? Is he to be seen? What does he say to us? Does he share our risks?’ And the same questions in different form confront the leader himself: In front always, sometimes or never? is a dilemma that the elected statesman can ultimately no better escape than the heroic leader himself. (314)
Keegan identifies five means by which commanders have managed this problem: kinship, sanction, example, prescription, and action. The leader who calls soldiers to battle must in some way demonstrate kinship and personal connection with those soldiers; he must also exercise the power of sanction in a system of rewards and discipline; so too, a personal example of sacrifice is needed, even if limited; prescription then provides the circumstantial ‘why now?’ for war; and all of these together make for effective leadership where action moves towards victory.
The Undoing of Command
These five modes of instituting and maintaining command in war are logical and need little if any defense. But in a dramatic turn in his conclusion to the book, Keegan says that all five modes are now utterly useless:
Power over nuclear weapons has undermined or invalidated all these imperatives. The exclusivity of the nuclear community, burdened by secrets it is legally forbidden to communicate, and physically isolated from the community it is charged to protect, has sundered all kinship between it and society at large; sanction has lost its force, since the proper management of a nuclear system will generate no occasion for either punishment or reward, or none at any rate that can be readily revealed; the opportunity for example is, as we have seen, denied by nuclear logic, which requires the leader to be at least risk among all members of his or her society; prescription, in consequence, is self-defeating, if not down-right destructive of authority, since all exhortation to courage and fortitude invites the riposte, And What of You?; and action, the test by which leadership has always ultimately been validated, is, of course, denied by the necessity to avoid all outcomes in nuclear confrontation whatsoever” (343-344).
The changes that nuclear weapons have wrought on heroic leadership are remarkable. Among those changes, perhaps most significant is that political leaders have been placed back on the front lines of battle:
Today the political leaders of the nuclear states have become Alexanders, the repositories of ultimate military as well as political responsibility in the polities they head, but with this unmanning – or unwomanning – difference: that those whose hands lie closest to the weapons by which society is defended are those who, in the eventuality of their use, would be placed furthest from the physical consequences of their impact (338).
With access to the nuclear codes, leaders are now back on the frontlines, like Alexander was, but their goal is now the opposite of Alexander’s: to do all that is in their power to prevent conflict and eliminate violence:
So comprehensive is the American nuclear command and control system that the role of the man at its centre, the President, has been described as that not of implementing nuclear response (or attack) but precisely the contrary: assuring that missiles will always remain in their tubes or silos, and aircraft within national airspace, unless he specifically orders otherwise. The President is, in sort, like the wise elder of a pre-heroic society, an inhibitor of conflict, not its instigator, director or leader. (340).
Keegan calls this new form of leadership “post-heroic leadership” (346). His book concludes by saying that it is precisely an inactive leader that is the best leader:
Indeed, what is asked first of a leader in the nuclear world is that he should not act, in any traditionally heroic sense, at all. An inactive leader, one who does nothing, sets no striking example, says nothing stirring, rewards no more than he punishes, insists above all in being different from the mass in his modesty, prudence and rationality, may sound no leader at all. But such, none the less, is the sort of leader the nuclear world needs, even if it does not know that it wants him. ‘Post-heroic’ is the title he might take for himself. For all is changed, utterly changed. Passing brave it may once have been to ride in triumph through Persepolis. Today the best must find conviction to play the hero no more (351).
The political and war-making implications of nuclear weapons are massive, of course, but so is, arguably, the significance for masculinity. Nuclear societies now equivocate about the relevance of masculinity as expressed through heroism in the armed forces:
Armies are now but one means by which states of the first rank – those deploying nuclear weapons or belonging to an alliance which does – defend themselves, and not only that: they are a subordinate means (337-338).
This is why well-known, highly decorated soldiers of recent years like Marcus Luttrell and Chris Kyle, with their profound personal sacrifices and achievements are not held in greater esteem. The fate of an entire nation and society did not hinge on their sacrifices, as it did with Alexander. Never will the military heroics of an individual soldier be so important that he is revered around the world.
It’s not that service in the armed forces isn’t sacrificial and brave. It is. But what the nuclear age has done is to render nuclearized societies ambivalent about military heroes because those heroes most closely resemble exactly the kind of leader that we don’t want. And that ambivalence is prevalent enough to make men uneasy and confused about what it means to behave like a man, or to feel that masculinity is being dishonored and slighted by American culture.
This explains why superhero movies are so engaging today: apocalyptic worlds can be designed so that the fate of society does hinge on the hand-to-hand combat of a hero. Tallahassee’s masculinity is supposedly tethered to his ability to crush skulls with an open car door, not because such action is necessarily a masculine thing to do but because the continued existence of humanity is under constant threat in his world.
Masculinity, and all that is considered to be a genuine display of masculinity, has been dramatically reshaped since Alexander the Great. If the future and prosperity of nations depend on their leaders forsaking heroism, then what can a man do to genuinely act masculine? Any attempt to live out mascu-philic warriorship within state-sanctioned approval is doomed to historical insignificance, and any such attempt outside of state-sanctioned approval — like that of Kyle Rittenhouse and the Wolverine Watchmen militia — is doomed to be condemned as irrational and shameful.
That the centuries-long acceptance of heroism as necessitating violence to some degree has been so thoroughly turned on its head, makes contemporary calls for men to get in touch with their masculine side through working out, boxing, and avoiding technology before bed appear very small, irrelevant, and unaware of a much bigger problem.
The Conditions of Masculinity
Keegan’s arguments in The Mask of Command about nuclear warfare are not, of course, playing consciously in the mind of the average American man. The effect of nuclear warfare on the modern man is a condition of contemporary masculinity; it is a circumstance that is external to, yet undeniably influential for the self-consciousness of men today. The change in warfare has forced a change in heroic leadership which has forced a change in cultural values and the way in which masculinity is framed. The conditions in which masculinity is played out and defined have changed dramatically. This is true whether we can articulate the conditions or not, but if we can articulate them, it will make our proclamation of Christ more tangible and relevant.
In A Secular Age Charles Taylor wrestles with the question of how it is that belief in God has been so dramatically sidelined in Western culture. He points out that there are two common explanations given for this and he calls them ‘Secularity 1’ and ‘Secularity 2.’ He describes Secularity 1 as “the retreat of religion in public life” (423); it is an institutional shift. Secularity 2 is “the decline in belief and practice;” the faithfulness (or faithlessness) of individuals (423). Taylor then goes on to articulate a third manner of considering the historic shift to a secular age, ‘Secularity 3,’ which he calls the ‘conditions of belief,’ or the development and interplay of how belief is framed and envisioned in society. Looking at the conditions of belief is helpful because “secularity in this sense is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual or religious experience and search takes place” (3).
In a similar manner, we can benefit from looking at masculinity in it’s “whole context of understanding” and thereby better understand the changes that have occurred from Alexander the Great until now, as a shift in the conditions of masculinity. There are some who have argued that changes to the traditional gender roles in the home and workplace explain why a large number of men are, to varying degrees, feeling disenfranchised. That gender roles should be given serious consideration as influential for masculine self-perception very much has merit, for women playing roles in the armed forces and in the upper levels of executive management is a marked shift from only seventy years ago; we could call this ‘Masculinity 1,’ for it involves a public and institutional shift.
There are also some who have argued that a decline in historically masculine activities and behavior (such as hunting, participating in highly physical sports, and the like) explains why men are often troubled today; the popular misinterpretation of the movie Fight Club, with the many fight clubs formed in response, are evidence of this kind of view. We might call it, ‘Masculinity 2,’ for it speaks to a decline in individual performance of masculinity.
But neither of these views explain all that has changed for men, at least not in the Western world. Consider, for instance, that personality differences between men and women tend to be larger rather than smaller in gender-egalitarian nations, compared to underdeveloped nations where distinct gender roles are more prevalent. Shifting gender roles and a perceived decline in traditionally male activities are arguably a response to larger changes, and so, while relevant to the question of masculinity in contemporary culture, they do not address enough of the whole context in which masculinity functions.
So we must look at a kind of ‘Masculinity 3,’ the conditions of masculinity. Keegan’s explanation of the effects of nuclear power shows one such condition, where armies have lost their relevance and attempts at heroism are likely to be frowned upon rather than revered. There are many other changes to the frame in which we understand masculinity, I will look at one more: the weakened sense of White masculinity through colorblindness and the heroism of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Heroic Command of Martin Luther King Jr
It is impossible to separate Whiteness from an examination of masculinity. The two are very much distinct concepts, but racial identity, and the changes that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement in particular, are a significant part of the framing and conditions in which American masculinity exists.
The five means by which a commander legitimizes his power (kinship, sanction, example, prescription, and action) are, according to John Keegan, now invalidated and made irrelevant by nuclear power. But they are rendered invalid for the war-making of presidents, prime ministers, and generals in the armed forces; they are not invalid for other forms of leadership. And no one exemplifies this more than Martin Luther King Jr. and the leaders of the Civil Rights movement.
Consider for a moment: what American, or group of Americans, in the last one hundred years, has most clearly demonstrated heroism and heroic command? What man or men have sacrificed more in fighting a greater enemy than Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders? There are others, of course, who gave both their minds and their lives in heroic ways; Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a strong example (Bonhoeffer, of course, was not American, but he remains very relevant to American Christian minds). The enormity of fighting the Nazis makes Bonhoeffer of enormous import when considering heroism. But the cultural and legal sea change wrought by King’s leadership in the face of centuries-old racism make his example unparalleled, and uniquely, and perhaps ironically, heroic.
King, along with John Lewis, Medgar Evers et al., was not playing the role of hero as an intentionally masculine performance. And there are many men, even today, who would not want to look to King as a model of masculinity, and his marital infidelity would be a good reason not to. But King’s place in the American imagination is unarguably immense, and with his fame as an American hero in the last century, he has plainly changed a condition of masculinity, and he has done so specifically as a Black, non-violent man who thoroughly fulfilled Keegan’s five imperatives of command.
King and the Civil Rights leaders accomplished various victories through direct, personal and vulnerable action: boycotting buses, marching into water hoses, serving jail time for protests. The prescription, or circumstantial ‘why now?’ behind these actions was overwhelming and vile discrimination: Jim Crow segregation, vast inequality, and racist violence. Sanction was the choice between remaining under the punishing status quo or seeking the reward of equality. The kinship of Black identity and of direct participation in protests could not have been more tangible to those who participated in the Movement. And King’s example of facing down racism in his time, in person, to the frequent, and eventually ultimate destruction of his body, legitimized his authority and galvanized hundreds of others into non-violent battle along with him. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement are as much and even more the hero than Alexander the Great, because their weapons were precisely the opposite of brute force, shaming their enemies with a potency that crushing military might cannot conjure.
King and the other leaders thoroughly turned the masculine warrior vision against itself, by using the very means of establishing command that have been effectively used for war-making throughout the history of humanity. In so doing, their example pronounces a condemnation of mascu-philia, and puts warrior-like masculine behavior to ridicule.
But this is accomplished specifically as Black men, undoing the previously assumed attachment and association between Whiteness and heroism, and exposing White supremacy as a greater enemy to America than any other since the Nazis. After the Civil Rights Movement, no self-respecting man could ever call White people “the greatest people that have ever trod this earth” and not be openly opposed. A man might think in his head that White people are supreme, and he might speak of it in a thinly veiled manner, but no man could ever openly and directly connect dominance and power to Whiteness without being widely shamed. For centuries, it had been the case that being male and being White could be freely spoken of as being dominant and powerful — and sometimes heroic — without question. The life and story of Martin Luther King Jr. makes that no longer the case. He has forced White men into what we might call the White double consciousness.
Double Consciousness and Color Blindness
It may be reasonably objected that many men today do not consciously think of Whiteness when they think of heroism. The argument would be that we live in a different time, particularly a time when a very large number of men were not alive when King lived, so Whiteness is no longer relevant to masculinity.
But we’re seeking to understand the conditions of masculinity, which can affect masculine self-perception without needing to have a precise or direct effect on the average man’s conscious self-awareness. And the truth that White men can no longer claim one of their own at the pinnacle of heroic leadership in America is deeply significant for the masculine imagination. There are many White heroes in history, of course, but none as influential and as widely regarded today as King is. And there is no better proof of the effect of King on White men — nor is there a better analogy for the discomfort that many men feel today — than the influence of colorblindness and the White double consciousness that colorblindness has catalyzed.
Colorblindness is the claim that racial identity and skin tone ought to be ignored. It’s behind statements such as, “There is one race, the human race,” or, “There is no ‘black’ church,” or in the misinterpretation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream.
The concept of colorblindness sounds straightforward, simple, and well-intentioned. But what is regularly missed about it is that it subtly casts White identity as problematic. This is not, of course, what colorblindness advocates are consciously seeking: they want race to simply disappear. Consider what Craig Mitchell says in his article for the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel: “Race… has been harmful to our society. It is a concept that is best forgotten,” as if forgetting harmful things will make them go away.
If we are to be colorblind, then identifying as White is not the immutable, neutral description of European descendants as it has historically been understood. This creates a dissonance, as Nell Irvin Painter put it, where our speaking of Whiteness “toggle[s] between nothingness and awfulness.” Thus, at one moment, particularly in discussions about race, a White person will speak of their Whiteness as a basic fact obvious to all, and in the next moment, they will deny that race has anything to do with who they truly are. Colorblindness is a way of thinking that has catechized many, but not with consistent logic.
What it has done is to create a fractured self-conception, or a kind of double consciousness. It’s not unlike — though certainly not the same — as the Black double consciousness that W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about in 1903:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife- this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. (DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903, 2-3)
The double-consciousness, as Du Bois describes it, is two imagined versions of one’s self that are ‘unreconciled strivings.’ There is, on the one hand, the person as they know themselves to be, and then there is who they are in the eyes of society.
For Black people, Kafi Kumasi describes it as experiencing “the power of second sight from the perspective of antiblack prejudice.” The striving is for oneness between self-consciousness and public perception, but the two selves are not necessarily united because one version of the self (anti-black prejudice in society) is directly opposed to the other (the inherent value and dignity of the Black person).
Picturing the Double Consciousness
We might picture this two-ness as an issue of identities that are not aligned:
The perception of Blackness in society puts it out of alignment with other identities. For White men, however, the various facets of their identity have traditionally been viewed as tightly aligned, where the self-consciousness of a White man mostly aligned perfectly with how American culture saw him:
But the trumpeting of colorblindness forces Whiteness partially out of alignment with other identities. The toggling between White as immutable, neutral fact on the one hand, and non-existent idea to be forgotten on the other, is like playing a game of hide-and-seek, which is increasingly harder to do in a world more welcoming of voices of color, particularly in a world that reveres a Black non-violent man as heroic.
David French alluded to this double consciousness in looking at how the shame of White Southerners influences the behavior of White Christians, quoting Kent State professor Gary Ciuba: “honor meant that southerners beheld themselves as others beheld them” because “their self-worth lived in the look of the other.”
So to many White people today, it feels as if there is strain and discord in the alignment of Whiteness with all the other identities:
This strain, along with the strain on masculine identity, leads in the minds of some to a fear that all of the other identities will become misaligned and fall apart completely:
Whiteness and masculinity are not necessarily experiencing the exact same problems, for they are anthropologically distinct identities. But they are experiencing the strain in a similar way. Just as colorblindness forces White identity out of its traditional alignment, so the changes in the conditions of masculinity have put strain on the self-conscious manhood of many men in recent decades. The #metoo movement, with its calls to reject toxic masculinity and patriarchy — which are often misunderstood as opposition to masculinity itself — is simply the latest manifestation of stress placed on the male self-consciousness. So it then makes sense to see the Tallahassian man of irony as not only a reaction to the real-life impossibility of warrior heroism, but also as a protective measure against this double consciousness and anticipated fracturing.
Masculinity, for many men, has become weakened by the conditions of masculinity, where leaders are desired for their peacemaking rather than strength, and where Black non-violent heroes have strained the sense of self that many White men have today.
That men in general, and White men in particular have a sense of feeling disenfranchised, should not be surprising. A cultural banner of shame has been hung over much of what is portrayed among them as true masculinity. As Du Mez puts it: “Reared on a false narrative of wartime heroism, many men were haunted by the sense that they somehow failed to measure up.” (Jesus and John Wayne, p56)
That haunted sense of failing to measure up is why the world of entertainment regularly gives men two bad options. The Alexandrian mascuphilic man acts as if he can be the measurement against which all other men fail. The Tallahassian man of irony drowns out his sense of inferiority for not measuring up with sarcastic comedy.
A better, more accessible option is one that John Keegan briefly mentions in his reassessment of political leadership in a nuclear society: “The President is, in sort, like the wise elder of a pre-heroic society, an inhibitor of conflict, not its instigator, director or leader (340).”
The village elder archetype has always existed in communities around the world in an unofficial way if we hold a loose definition of what constitutes a village. Think of a particularly strong church elder or deacon, or a community leader who naturally commands attention. Such people, at their best, inhabit their roles with an awareness of their limitations, and with an inclination towards an authority that is embodied and present for the good of others. This is not for a moment to say that all village elders in all communities are automatically welcoming of limitations and work selflessly. It is to say that the village elder motif lends itself to such qualities much more than other options.
In contrast, Alexandrian mascuphilic heroism is an inaccessible mirage, an inhuman attempt to throw off weaknesses and limitations and rule the world with force. In Alexander, we might strive after heroism, but it is not a heroism that is for the good of others, and it is not a heroism that is accepting of human weakness.
Ironic Tallahassian masculinity is an attempt to reconcile with our failures to be Alexander. In Tallahassee, we are aware of our limitations, but we use them for comedy instead of personal growth, and we give up on serving others sacrificially because we think our only options are to be Alexander or to be a hypocrite.
A humanized, Christian masculinity is accepting of limitations and accepting of the grace of Christ when we fail to face and fight the problems of our world. In Christ, we can freely strive after a limited heroism that is for the good of others and that accepts weakness.
The challenge of making the village elder archetype a more defined and common role for men is largely one of perception. The village elder looks less than masculine to men who embrace mascuphilia, and looks elitist to men who embrace ironic masculinity. But the village elder role, rightly embodied, avoids the inhuman foolishness of mascuphilia and the impotent fear of ironic masculinity.
The village elder model can be accessible and validating for men. On the one hand, such a man will have a reluctance towards heroism because he is not self-serving, but on the other hand he will demonstrate a willing bravery when necessary. Such reluctant yet bold willingness was true of men like Medgar Evers, Desmond Doss and Franz Jagerstatter. The acts of standing up for others, saving lives, and standing against evil may not hold the fate of civilization in balance, but they do demonstrate a validating, competent masculinity.
Furthermore, such acts follow in the pattern of Christ rather than competing with Christ, as mascuphilia does. And such acts, in following the pattern of Christ, are the best way to avoid the shame of hypocrisy and failure that Tallahassian irony feels. The problem of whether we appear more or less masculine fades in the light of Christ’s kingly rule and the overwhelming power of his cross and resurrection. And the problem of appearing hypocritically elitist fades in the light of the honor of becoming Christ’s fellow heirs who follow him in triumphal procession.
There is much that could and should be said about applying the village elder role to masculine life in America today; peace-making leadership along with hesitant but willing heroism have been central to the role for centuries, digital maturity and emotional intelligence are increasingly necessary in the twenty-first century. But for Christians seeking to proclaim a Christ who is relevant to men in America today, careful attention must be given to the ways in which men today crave validation and feel a strain in their sense of self.
Following Christ as a man in the modern world has many challenges. It would be easy to lose ourselves in chasing Alexandrian visions. And it’s tempting to bail out our less-than-mascu-philic lives with Tallahassian irony. But only in patterning our masculinity after Christ can we rightly live out our hopes and fight our fears as men.