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Redeeming Neverland: The Question of Shame & the Crisis of Agency Facing Modern Men

April 24th, 2023 | 18 min read

By Brad Edwards

J. M. Barrie first wrote Peter Pan as a play in 1904, expanding it into a full novel in 1911. Nothing he wrote before or since would ever come close to sparking such popular reception. It tapped into and articulated the tension of a society in the throes of rapid social change and economic reordering. British Imperialism’s assumed stability shuddered in the face of America’s rise to power on the global stage. Though Britain was technically victorious, the South African War (1899-1902) offered Great Britain both a disturbing preview of WWI and a painful illustration of the consequences in being slow to adapt to rapid technological advancement. Combining the dated tactics of the muzzle-loading era with breach-loading rifles led only to carnage. A growing fear of national decline was palpable, with its attendant implications spreading through British society.

The original play’s subtitle, “The Boy Who Refused To Grow Up,” encapsulated both a conflicted nostalgia for the passing Victorian Era and an anxious uncertainty of what the emerging Edwardian Age would hold. The world that was (Hook) no longer is, but what will be (Pan) is yet-unclear, with British men caught in an economic, cultural, and political crucible not unlike the liminality of our own cultural moment.

To mark the 70th Anniversary of their animated classic, Peter Pan, Disney is releasing a live-action remake, Peter Pan and Wendy. While I’m looking forward to seeing Jim Gaffigan in the role of Mr. Smee, it is highly unlikely to resonate with a new generation of young men. The most dark and honest themes of Barrie’s original work will undoubtedly be either cut or as kiddified as the animated version it celebrates the anniversary of. And if so, it will tragically miss an invaluable opportunity to offer hope to a modern generation of boys and men in crisis.

Men, Masculinity, and Culture Wars

For reasons largely outside of their control, boys and young men are falling through society’s cracks at alarming rates. This is happening so consistently and comprehensively that men are now imminently facing an even greater educational disadvantage and disparity in workforce representation than women have since Title IX passed in 1972. In an article focused on the friendlessness and despair facing modern men, David French shows that the disappearance of vocational outlets has left men with a crisis of meaning, purpose, and community – one greatly worsened by the collapse of institutional safety nets that historically mitigated the pain of similar socio-economic shifts.

Parallels abound between the Late Victorian Era and Late Modernity, but they end with the start of WWI (at least for now). The first Industrial Age conflict violently accelerated transition across Western society. Albeit at catastrophic cost, it also provided an outlet for young British men floundering in transition, “adventure” equipping them with patriotic meaning and purpose. We may be living through a period of similarly seismic erosion of consensus, but God forbid we become desperate enough to view war as a viable solution to modern liminality.

What are modern men to do when our culture provides vanishingly few realistic or socially acceptable outlets for men longing to matter and eager to prove it. What aspiration is left for men when the Left believes your sex is irredeemably depraved and the Right gives participation trophies for being born with a penis?

I too would rather take flight with happy thoughts or play the pirate king of a fictional paradise than fight over equally dishonest utopias. Like all escapist fantasies, anti-visions require nothing of those preoccupied by them except to conceptually “be against” the other. It’s an easy, distracting fantasy. But our modern culture wars and the anti-visions fueling them are not innocent distractions. A false 911 call is a felony because it draws life-saving attention and resources away from actual needs.

Dehumanizing legalism (on the Left) and empty caricatures (on the Right) make no meaningful impact on the existential realities of men and succeed only in compounding the existential crisis lurking beneath the economic and educational one.

The Existential Crisis of Unanswered Shame

Thanks in large part to Brené Brown’s popularization, many people finally have some language to describe the pool we’ve been swimming in – shame. But being aware that we’re drowning in shame isn’t the same as being equipped or skilled to wisely answer it (especially theologically), and Brown almost exclusively focuses on negative or toxic shame. Shame can be healthy. It functions as a guardrail to our most socially damaging inclinations (e.g. adultery or child neglect). Its absence can be disastrous to families, communities, and cultures, but shame-as-social-consequence is, on its own, limited in affecting long-term transformation.

To be “shameless” is not a complement. It describes someone who selfishly ignores social guardrails at the expense of their community (either knowingly or foolishly). Yet only sociopaths reach that point due to a true absence of shame. Counter-intuitively, it is when an over-saturation of shame accumulates and metastasizes, that we simply stop caring about social consequences. We become shameless when shame overwhelms our capacity to attend to it, resolve it, or both. We, men and women alike, will slide into shamelessness if we believe we no longer have any standing left to lose. Once shame reaches that tipping point within a person or community, it flips from guardrail to jet fuel, empowering the very social ill it was leveraged to mitigate.

Shame is the fear of insignificance, the lived experience of finitude (healthy) and/or not-mattering (unhealthy). Biblically, it is the opposite of “doxa,” or “glory” (also translated as “weight/significance”). Kids subjected to verbal abuse, or who are repeatedly shamed for minor infractions start to assume it’s true because it’s easier than being haunted by the question of whether it is or not. Anyone who has adopted or cared for foster children knows how much time and effort it takes to answer shame’s narrative with one of enough-ness and beloved-ness. If you are always a burden to those around you, why bother trying?

Richard Reeves points out in his new book, Of Boys and Men: Why The Modern Male Is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What To Do About It, that the two most common words men use to describe themselves are “useless” and “worthless.” “Well, if this supposedly is who I am,” men say to ourselves, “then why shouldn’t I (watch pornography/have an affair/embezzle money/binge digital entertainment)?” I encountered no narrative more consistent while screening soldiers for PTSD as a Chaplain in the Army National Guard. Over 9 years, I counseled over 50 soldiers with suicidal ideations, six of which culminated in a formal intervention (a medical 72-hour hold). All of them were warriors fighting demons of fear and despair, but stunningly only one of them suffered due to combat-related trauma.

Arguably, the most toxic aspects of modern masculinity are behaviors of despair – symptoms of deep insecurity and prolonged experience of not-belonging. As one of the few remaining institutions still seen as trustworthy, young men often gravitate toward the military as a means of overcoming insecurity through an even greater belonging. Many men enlist to flee their demons, but they never stop fighting them.

Contrary to their reputation as angry task-masters, Drill Instructors intuitively function as paternal glory-surgeons. They know, intuitively if not consciously, that when we puritanically tell men “be better” without believing they can be (never mind mentoring them in that journey), we empower the deep-seeded shame and insecurity that produced it in the first place. But shame’s insecurity, when answered with another’s authoritative reassurance of significance (“glory”), becomes the fertile soil of transformation. Apart from glory’s surgical renarration of the soul, shame will fester until not-mattering becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That is the existential crisis facing men, and the context for why it’s being ignored.

The Left’s Lost Boys and Cultural Shame

No one epitomizes the Left’s anti-vision of masculinity’s toxic excess more than John Wayne. Let’s avoid the minefield of whether that is fair or accurate, and assume for the sake of argument that I actually agree that he personifies toxic masculinity, that I also want to see a more kind, humble, and Christ-like servanthood to characterize modern men. So why isn’t that happening?

Predating Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s wildly popular book by three years, Stephen Metcalf traced a surprising thread through John Wayne’s career – being bullied.

That’s right. The man’s man who ain’t never took no lip from nobody was relentlessly and publicly shamed by John Ford, the man who discovered and molded him into the silver screen’s no-nonsense, gruff-talking stoic. Ford was apparently “savage in his mistreatment of Wayne” who so passively took it on the chin that others on set would have to step in to defend him.

Yes, we are indeed talking about the same John Wayne.

What’s even more surprising is why Ford bullied him: Wayne wasn’t man enough. To Ford, he was a floating signifier, a malleable vessel to project his idealized masculinity into. As much (twisted) Drill Instructor as Film Director, Ford wasn’t satisfied with merely shaping Wayne’s performance, he had to remake Wayne himself into his own (imagined) swashbuckling image. It was a projection birthed from his own unaddressed shame, even self-hatred, over what he saw as feminine attributes he longed to purge.

Like John Ford, James Hook relentlessly sought to purge Peter Pan from Neverland after losing both his hand and his significance in a sword fight with a child. Shame is ever the domain of the bully. And, to the degree that it directs his aspirations, one to which he is utterly enslaved (and compensating for). Prescient of the masculinity crisis that has grown over the last decade, Metcalf sees Wayne’s transformation as a cautionary tale:

Masculinity as puerile male bonding, as toxic overcompensation and status jockeying—this is what’s unleashed when masculinity no longer has an obvious function. Divorced from social purpose, “being a man” becomes merely symbolic. (emphasis mine)

If many on the Left want to actively encourage men to LARP as pirates and spread juvenile masculinity, then they should simply continue doing exactly as they are. To stunt all expressions of masculine strength – both healthy and toxic – is a doomed strategy, and one increasingly transparent in its goal of role reversal rather than real equality. This puritanical impulse simply genders depravity in the opposite direction, shutting down even healthy masculine expression for a counterfeit (i.e. “worthless” and “useless”).

Without affirmation of worth or aspiration to grow, shame begets shame. We will never shame men into better behavior, but that’s a hard pill to swallow for those who are themselves shaped by the toxic shame of cancel culture. If all you have is a hammer (shame) you’ll see every problem as a nail. The direction we swing that hammer, whether Ford’s bullying of Wayne toward caricature, or society’s use of caricature to gender depravity, is wholly irrelevant. Both are shameful hyperbole. Neither resolve unanswered shame.

Wayne tolerated mistreatment only because he longed for Ford’s approval. He needed it. And according to Metcalf, he got it. Personal mentorship and inclusion within Ford’s inner circle were powerful infusions of worth and belonging offered to an insecure young man. That need to belong is real and was somehow critically lacking in Wayne’s formative years (or at least, I assume it was considering what he endured to achieve it). It is a valid need almost universally neglected by the modern Left.

We shouldn’t be surprised that one lost in a desert will be less than discerning of mud’s drinkability. Neither should we be surprised when men adrift at sea slake their thirst on the only (salt) water available to them. For Wayne, the facade of significance was better than nothing. Likewise, Neverland’s false glory is an understandable temptress to men lacking purpose or starving for significance.

The Right’s Pirate Kings and Vain-Glory

In a sermon entitled “Young Men and Their Strength” from September, 2020, Moscow ID pastor Douglas Wilson articulates an acute awareness of how cultural dynamics have intensified and sensitized men to shame:

Our culture has a real hostility to genuine masculinity and because of that, we don’t want to bring our additional contempt on masculinity… We’d only be pouring gasoline on these cultural fires if we bring along any additional contempt. (emphasis added)

Wilson plays “good cop” to culture’s “bad cop,” and effectively so. He positions himself and those who think similarly as a refuge for the persecuted and misunderstood male. This isn’t malicious. After all, Jesus offered refuge to many ostracized by impoverished culture or oppressed by legalistic religion. What could be more noble or biblical?

In the same sermon, Wilson defines “godly masculinity” as “the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility.” I’d prefer “glad acceptance” to reinforce that sacrificial responsibility is ordinarily bestowed by others (and God, ultimately), and is therefore entrusted and received rather than entitled or presumed. Still, that short definition offers shame-burdened men a genuinely worthwhile telos, an aspiration of real significance to men feeling trapped by shame both culturally- and self-imposed.

However, it is my hesitation at his use of “assumption” rather than “acceptance” that illustrates where Wilson’s masculinity goes astray: no aspiration is independent of its path, and no end is unshaped by its means. Wilson’s admirable and biblical aspiration of “sacrificial responsibility” is nevertheless corrupted by its means. When masculine strength assumes responsibility it is not entrusted with it becomes functionally presumptive and entitled. Responsibility with presumption as its genesis can’t help but become self-serving and vain. Complementarian ends through patriarchal means is neither complementarian nor Christlike. At best, it is extremely difficult to arrive at a virtuous stewardship of masculine strength or agency. At its worst, “glad assumption” becomes a Trojan horse smuggling selfishness through the gate of “sacrificial responsibility,” reducing masculinity to performative means and counterfeit ends.

In Barrie’s novel, Hook designed and fabricated his own cigar holder so he could smoke two at the same time. In a video thick with irony, Wilson uses his cigar to ignite a field soaked in gasoline poured in the shape of a very pirate-like skull and crossed pencils. You can’t make this up.

Wilson, of course, is only one of a variety of dissident conservative male figures in media with a large and enthusiastic audience of young men. Many of these figures resonate with young men because they (falsely) promise young men something they truly are not getting elsewhere: meaning-full mentorship. Young men resonate with the parade of Captain Hook cosplays because they’re desperate for guidance that affirms and guides their strength rather than fears it or shames them for it. They resonate for the same reasons Hook did a hundred years ago: they personify a pride in masculine strength that is increasingly deemed irrelevant by modernity or taboo by society.

Pirate Kings thus meet Drag Queens on the culture war battlefield. Visions enslaved to antithesis, they each become the caricature of masculinity their nemesis derides. Two different flavors of gendered relativism, they’re mobilized to either break (Pirate Kings) or fortify (Drag Queens) the front lines of gendered depravity.

It is a masculinity neither theological nor cultural, but something simultaneously alchemical and therapeutic. By flipping the script on toxic masculinity – voila! – shame’s lead becomes glory’s gold. For men bullied to exhaustion by incessant cultural reminders of not measuring up yet still fighting the temptation of succumbing to shamelessness, the false promise that our accumulated shame is actually confirmation (you’re doing it right) rather than condemnation (you’re never enough) is one hell of a siren’s song.

Pyrite masculinity is every bit the fool’s gold that pirate masculinity is false glory: imitation of something good and real, yet impotent to transform the substance of shame. As Alastair Roberts wrote over five years ago, “Faced with the pathologization of any actual manliness in much of the culture, a simulation of masculinity may be the best many can muster.” Performative masculinity isn’t victory over shame, it’s a dressed up SOS of the lost. That so many image-bearers settle for counterfeit glory rather than its substance should provoke the conscience of Christian men and women alike.

And if it doesn’t, we call that shamelessness.

The Problem With Neverland Masculinities

Neverland was an appropriate (if ironic) battleground for Captain Hook and Peter Pan, enabling one to live in anachronistic denial of reality and the other to escape within do-no-harm refusal of aspiration. With swords digital rather than fictional, via “based” chad memes or policing “problematic” language, we can flee reality’s pressure and shame’s despair for a make-believe that promises mattering without maturity.

Neverland’s fantasy, in other words, is that men can give up on growing up (Lost Boys on the Left) or just pretend to (Pirate Kings on the Right). But the more we LARP as either Lost Boy or Pirate King and the more we confuse virtual pugilism for masculine virtue, the more impotent our capacity to exercise flesh and blood responsibility becomes. Of course Neverland is easier! Who doesn’t long to be part of a grand story with an endless supply of (online) villains where the good guys always win?

That’s the tell. That’s how we know Neverland is too familiar, too unserious, and too alchemical to be the “far-off land” worth fighting for:

“If Christianity (or its masculinity) could tell me no more of the far-off land than my own temperament led me to surmise already, then Christianity (or masculinity) would be no higher than myself. If it has more to give me, I expect it to be less immediately attractive than “my own stuff.” – C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory [parentheticals and emphasis mine]

The very first line of Peter Pan is an ominous one: “All children, except one, grow up.” “Growing up” is more than aging, more than growing a beard, or more even than simply having responsibility. Without meaningful aspiration, Lost Boys will remain lost. Without glory’s inoculation of shame, masculinity will be reduced to performance dressed-up with double cigar holders. Neither are a sufficient Muse to virtue or character. Neither rescue men from this existential crisis, nor do they deliver more than momentary relief from shame.

What then, shall men do?

Well, we actually do need to fight. But we need to relearn both why we fight (not to resolve our shame) and how we fight (to steward our strength).

Shame’s Question and Glory’s Giggle

I have been prepared to talk to my son about bullies for longer than he has drawn breath. Nothing is more motivating to get that right than being bullied and (though he tried, truly) your own dad not being able to provide an answer to the shame it induced. Still, I was definitely not prepared to do so during his first semester of kindergarten.

Another kid in his class had punched our son in the face on the playground. The aide (thankfully) handled it flawlessly, but she couldn’t get much more out of them than that. Knowing my son has a very sensitive conscience, I canceled plans and settled in to draw out the full story without compounding any guilt or shame he might be carrying.

I felt a very different kind of burden on my conscience. It was the acute awareness of my responsibility to help my son meet this moment with virtue, to help him take some of a boy’s first steps in growing up. I aspire to be the “Intentional Father” Jon Tyson describes in his book by the same name, to imperfectly teach my son and model that “a man is an image bearer and son of God with power and the responsibility to relate, cultivate, and defend, for God’s glory and the good of others.”

I explained to my son that this was the first of many important conversations we were going to have about what it means to grow up into a young man. I assured him he was loved, not in trouble, and wouldn’t be no matter what he said. It took a bit, but he shared (and we later confirmed) that the other kid started it but he didn’t know why. The other kid ended up on top of my son and hit him “twice, but probably three times.” He was free with details up until I asked him what made the other kid stop. I suspected he hit the kid back and was probably worried I’d be upset with him.

To say that I had a whole script for this moment is an understatement, but it assumed (perhaps naively) he’d be in at least 2nd or 3rd grade before having to break it out. How do I explain that men distinctly bear God’s image when and as we sacrificially steward our power or strength for the good of others to a kindergartner? I still don’t know, but I gave it my best shot.

“Son, why did God make us strong?”

Huh?

I explained that good men ask themselves that question when someone is using their strength in bad ways. To help him learn how to steward his strength, I came up with a simple call and response. Question: “Why did God make us strong?” Response: “To help people and keep them safe.” After we practiced it a few times, I continued…

“That means that if someone is hitting you, here’s what I want you to do… You ready? I want you hit them as hard as you can until they stop.”

At this point he gave me a look that was a combination of nervous, confused, and… hope? I pressed on, telling him that as soon as they stop, you stop. Immediately. Not one moment (or one punch) later. We don’t ever use our strength against someone because we’re mad or because they deserve it. That’s what little kids do, not young men. I promised him that if he does as I’ve asked, if he aspires to stewarding his strength as I described, I will never ever be mad at him. Only proud. Proud that he used his God-given strength to keep himself and others safe.

All that said, I asked again if he hit him back.

After a brief flash of panic, he admitted that he hit him back, “but just one time” because he didn’t want to get in trouble. I repeatedly and emphatically assured him that I was so proud of him, that he was not in trouble even a little bit. And yes, of course we can talk as long as he wants to because he matters to his dad. And I was so sorry this happened but, again, he did the right thing. I saved for another day that stopping bullies is an act of love because unjust use of strength is self-damaging. Instead, I focused on cultivating trust and creating space for future conversations.

He finally started to relax, but… it still felt like I was missing something I couldn’t put my finger on. “Hey bud, last question. I promise… Remember when you hit him back?”

Yeah…?

“It felt really good, didn’t it?”

And as any kindergartner in his shoes should, my son giggled. And I joined him.

That was it. Gap closed. Question answered. He really opened up after that. So much so that I had to gently walk back some of what I’ll summarize as enthusiastic overcorrection. (“No, we always stop when they stop… Yes, even if they say something really mean.”)

I’ll admit, I worried I might have just enabled my 5 year old, but then it hit me: this is how boys grow into men! By neither fearing masculine strength (despite the Left’s shame) nor defining yourself by it (despite the Right’s caricature), but learning to rightly steward it. “Turning the other cheek” is a lesson for when he’s older, when he can understand that that is love’s sacrificial choice, not when agency is taken from him before he knows how to use it. Within the safety of his dad’s shame-inoculating affirmation is where my son should explore his strength and learn to steward it through trial and error.

The good news is that men don’t have to go back in time to rewrite their childhood. To be “in Christ” means that when Jesus was baptized and God-the-Father declared through parted clouds, “This is my beloved Son, with him I am well pleased,” he declares through our haze of shame that we are his adopted sons and heirs. The cross signed and sealed in blood an inheritance of existential weight, significance, and mattering more than sufficient to resolve any doubt, question, or shame. Glory-empty orphans are made glory-full sons.

If you can imagine even a little of what the Father’s glory means to you in Christ, you can imagine what my affirmation meant to my son. Ours was not a celebration of violence, but of strength rightly used and gloriously affirmed. My son didn’t giggle because he’s shameless, but because bullying plants seeds of shame and doubt that I was able to free him of before they took root. He giggled because he didn’t even know he had those questions until his dad answered them. I affirmed his mattering, gave him a glimpse of aspiration worth fighting for, and it was glorious.

I joined him because it took me years to articulate the shame enough to even know how to ask: “Am I worthwhile? Am I enough? Do I have what it takes?” I joined him because, by entrusting me with the answers my son needed, my Heavenly Father again met my shame with glory. Behold, you are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased. Men should not aspire to earn their Father’s love any more than my son could earn mine. He already had it. As I answered my son’s question, I discovered anew that my question was answered too.

With shame resoundingly answered by Glory, all that’s left for men is to steward what strength or power we’re entrusted with for God’s glory and the good of others. God willing, I’ll steward my own strength well enough to help him grow into it. That glad responsibility is an adventure more exciting and satisfying than anything Neverland has to offer.