Reading Sen. Ben Sasse’s recent book The Vanishing American Adult reminded me of a chapter I read about the home life of Martin Bucer, a 16th century pastor and leader in the Protestant Reformation. Though his lifestyle was not that aberrant amongst the other reform leaders, it is still jarring to read about: Martin and his wife Elizabeth, an ex-nun just as Katherine Luther was, had eight children plus three miscarriages within the first 10 years of marriage. In addition to raising their own children, the Bucer’s regularly opened their home up to two additional groups: young aspiring ministers in the emerging reform movement and French refugees.
At one time, Bucer wrote to his friend Margaret Blaurer to apologize and explain why Elizabeth had not written her recently: “In this letter he writes that his wife has no time to write any words of her own because, besides the two Italians they already had in their home, four exiled Frenchmen and two Germans have now been added as well.”1
In another letter to Margaret, Bucer explained that Elizabeth did not have time to write due to caring for the children and household, but, he added, she didn’t really like writing anyway. This letter, rather delightfully, includes a post-script written by Elizabeth who saw the letter before it was sent: “I don’t mind writing at all, if only those hungry stomachs and the small fry would give me a little time. Good night! Pray to God for us. Now I have to go to the kitchen.”
Their home was not the only place in which the Bucers were busy, however. Martin also pastored St. Aurelia’s Church for many years, which posed enormous pastoral challenges due to the diverse nature of this particular congregation. In addition to the work at the church, Bucer was also a key leader in the broader Strasbourg church, working with other area pastors to advance the reform movement in the city and in south Germany and Switzerland more generally. That, of course, also meant that he maintained extensive correspondences with a number of pastors across Switzerland and Germany, including Margaret Blaurer’s brother Ambrose, and that he frequently traveled to other cities to quell disputes.
Taken as a whole, then, the Bucer family had a remarkably busy, strenuous life: Martin and Elizabeth routinely hosted large numbers of people, with the bulk of the labor involved with that hospitality falling on Elizabeth. Martin also wrote sermons every week in addition to many letters, Bible commentaries, and other writings as well.
In the past when I’ve discussed these stories with friends, I’ve tended to bracket the telling of it with some disclaimer along the lines of, “This sort of work-rate is not normative and it is probably not what normal Christians should aspire to.” Sen. Sasse’s book has me rethinking that though.
Throughout Sasse’s book he calls on his readers to attempt hard things personally and to equip their children to do the same. There is joy to be had in hard work done well, Sasse reminds us. Reading it not long after I read Brett and Kate McKay’s “Call for a New Strenuous Age,” I couldn’t help thinking about my own expectations for work and the expectations I hear from so many Christians in my peer group.
We live in a world where we define who we are basically from scratch. Anything that infringes on our freedom to do so is dismissed or treated with suspicion. One of the functions of living in such a society is that we develop a kind of neurosis about personal identity. Indeed, this insecurity about their identity can almost become part of many people’s identity. You’ve heard the old joke about how an evangelical is anyone who spends time arguing about who is an evangelical? Well, something like that happens in our society for many, many people. We dedicate a great amount of time and money to figuring out who we are—and all the while we typically feel quite uncertain about the process.
We have, thus, developed a number of ways of coping with this mixture of insecurity and exhaustion that seems to be a quintessentially modern experience. In the secular world, therapeutic concepts have become dominant, ideas like being gentle with oneself, practicing self-care, and so on. In less reflective evangelical circles, these same concepts are drug into the church with some thinly veiled attempt to Christianize them. Thus “being gentle with yourself” or “forgiving yourself” becomes “showing yourself grace,” or something similar.
Much like our non-religious peers, these concepts become a kind of crutch for us, an excuse for our lives, a thing we can point to in order to justify our lethargy and sense of being overwhelmed and uncertain and paralyzed. Thus we come to a point in the church’s history where, on the one hand, the needs for Christians and churches are enormous, and on the other the actual resources that Christians are willing to expend are minimal because we feel ourselves unable to do more.
Contrary to this trend, the example of someone like Bucer shows us a life that is strenuous but also full of intrigue, drama, excitement, and peril. Yet when we actually come to it, it’s not just Bucer’s life that should help us see that. It is any life. Lewis said you have never met a mere mortal and he was right—every person you meet will one day be a splendor or a horror and so there are no meaningless days, no little people, no inconsequential work. N. D. Wilson makes the point well in Notes from the Tilt-a-whirl:
I love the story. I love being in the story because there are beetles and my wife and my children with wide eyes and ticklish ribs and dirt that smells and hands that blister and wasps and moths and every-flavored wind. I love seeing the story because it shows me who I am and how far I need to go. Because it knocks me down and waits to see if I’ll get up. Because we are always standing on a cliff’s edge, and the danger is real. The choices in front of you never go away. Scene after scene is given to you and the teeming universe in the audience waits for your reaction, for your line, waits to see if you’ll yell at the fat-faced child who spilled the milk, or if you’ll laugh and kiss a cheek. What kind of father will you be in their story? The hump on their back that will always haunt them, the one who gave them damage to overcome? The one who’s too busy? The one who drinks? The one who cheats?
Walk the cliff. Watch yourself walk the cliff. The ocean is always there, devouring.
What will your character do when the petty things happen, when your car betrays you in the cold? When the pipes freeze? When God knowingly places ice on the sidewalk beneath your feet? When the sun sets beautifully while you needle your wife? Do you laugh at the jokes and love the lovely? Are you too important to be amused at your own finitude? Are you unaware that your bowels move daily? How lofty are you?
Depending on the circles you run in amongst younger evangelicals, I think you’re apt to run into one of two messages: The former will be therapeutic, it will counsel rest, knowing your limits, saying “no” to things, setting boundaries, and practicing self-care. It will say, “I know you are exhausted, so don’t take on more than you already have.” It will seem safe.
But it kills the soul.
It traps you in a narcissistic world of your own problems and jilted ambitions and broken dreams. And it pulls you downward and inward, which is precisely the direction Lewis imagines a person descending as they are pulled into hell in The Great Divorce.
The latter will be something like what I take Sasse and Wilson to be saying and what I think someone like Bucer would say as well: Stop looking in on yourself so much. Instead, throw yourself into good work. Get married and have children. Volunteer at the crisis pregnancy center. Start a business. Help out with the refugee classes. Teach a Bible study. Adopt a child. Start a school. Write to your congressman. Open up your home to strangers. Lose your life.
If that sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that. A man once said that anyone who wishes to keep their life will lose it. But those who lose their life for His sake will find it.
Walk the cliff. Look at the ocean. Don’t flinch.
This is certainly a helpful corrective of the emotional and spiritual coddling of the millennial world. At the same time, I would want to differentiate between a “strenuous” life of the kind that Bucer lived and the frenetic life many moderns lead. My guess is Bucer did not suffer from the same kind of paralyzing distraction which leads so many of us to feel we are “busy” when really we have become remarkably adept at wasting our time, lacking the ability to focus hard on “starting a business, teaching a bible study, writing a congressman” etc. So, yes, risk is good and right. Let’s learn how to cultivate a strenuous life that spends it on something worthwhile rather than hoarding it by “learning to say no”.
Following Peter F’s comment, I think this same recommendation falls into the same trap. A call for a Streneous Life, in the footsteps of TR and Muscular Christianity, is only a thin veil for the same identity-consumed narcissism that is all around us. Except now we are justified by our own self-perceived can-do attitude, and we can sneer at the “narcissist” namby-pambies who care about self-help and the therapeutic religion. But it’s really only the flip-side of the coin. I don’t see how this is much different than what Mark Driscoll tried to do, though with much more punch. This program is still just thinking about ourselves, but now refracted through the lens of other-oriented activity. Maybe we need to actually stop, and look around, and think about the local world around us. But many Evangelicals, like most Americans, are immune to reality, living off borrowed wealth and time.
This fits pretty well with the droning buzz of do, do, do, activity for the sake activity, etc. It fits pretty well with a world that is obsessed with activism and business. This piece seems like a straw-man, grounded in a shill politician trying to build his own brand of Conservatism. Maybe Sasse will be empty-headed and charming enough to become a new Reagan.
Another point that people gloss over is that many men correctly assess that the benefits of marriage don’t outweigh its costs in our society. That’s been the case for a while. Gary Becker wrote “A Theory of Marriage” nearly 45 years ago. Becker recognized that certain social and economic forces had changed the nature of what people are bargaining for in marriage. Even so, the “default rules” of marriage had failed to account for those changes. Thus, many people were entering into marriages under conditions that did not lead to transactionally efficient outcomes. Becker recognized well that no institution can survive that fails to produce benefits to its participants in excess of the costs of participation. For most women, marriage, as it is defined in our culture, still yields benefits in excess of its costs. That is not so for most men. For most men, marriage will fail to produce benefits in excess of its costs.
Sasse and the “family values” crowd have been lecturing men for four decades now, trying to guilt them into entering marriage against their better social and economic judgment. But stigmatizing economically sound judgment can only last for so long. Moralism eventually loses its power.
If Sasse wants more men to marry, he should consider the reasons why many men have chosen to take a pass. It’s one thing to exert “strenuous” effort if that effort is likely to deliver a payoff in excess of the effort. It’s another thing to exert such effort when the likelihood of a payoff is dim. We easily forget that the “family values” take on marriage and family is largely an invention of late-19th-century social theorists. The “nuclear family” was invented as a social structure for transitioning people from the farm to industrial jobs in the city. We face different challenges today, and we need to reimagine again what family life looks like in terms of our current social conditions. Nostalgia for the good ol’ days won’t cut it.
It should also be said that it’s fitting that Sasse looks up to Teddy Roosevelt, who pioneered “the strenuous life”. It was only a hobby for men who ruled the nation and were worried that decadent luxuries were ruining them. It was toil for the sake of toil, which is only ever an insult to the peasant and the prol. It’s the bizarre form that spare time can manifest as. Training for the sake of training, as art for the sake of art, really only makes sense when you realize that it’s about an elite who already have it all.
I find myself in basic agreement with Cal and Peter. This seems like the same kind of narcissistic, identity-focused, exclusionary vision of “manhood” that guys like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Tim Bayly, Denny Burk, Owen Strachan, et al. have been pandering for a while. Perhaps we should welcome the fact that people are diverse in many respects and stop trying to create hierarchies that segregate the “real men” from some allegedly inferior breed of men who meet God’s disapproval. After all, the phenomenon that this seeks to counteract largely evolved as a reaction to the “muscular Christianity” of an earlier era.
I was thinking about this Friday, when I went down to grab my morning Americano from the coffee shop in the first floor of my building. The local New Calvinist church was having a men’s Bible study on the picnic benches out front. Out of the dozen or so guys, all but one had beards. The bears all looked about the same. A majority wore cowboy boots, despite the fact that none was likely a cattle farmer. All were carrying a few extra pounds around the middle. And while their physiques suggested that they may engage in some resistance exercise, it’s likely that none of them participated in “effeminate” sports like running, cycling, yoga, swimming, etc. when I placed my order, I joked briefly with the cashier about how similarly styled these “real men” all were. He responded, “Yeah, it’s the weekly insecure Christian dudes’ Bible study.”
Notions of masculinity and effeminacy are often somewhat culturally construed. I’d much prefer that evangelicals just focus on faithfulness, and spend less time trying to identity properly engendered construals of what faithfulness looks like.
I think part of the problem is the concept of gender as it was worked out over the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a fixation on some ‘ousia’ of our sexed bodies that can be abstracted and analyzed. Therefore, the discourse switches from sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers to masculinity or maleness. This is one of the major conceptual differences between Puritan and Victorian moral literature. Both were concerned with how men acted, but they had some different notions of what that actually meant. Can we understand masculinity and femininity as a binary pair abstracted from the concrete roles worked out within our given sexed bodies?
Quite clearly, the problem lies in the root causes of labor changes in the 18th century, with growing plantation slavery, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the Bourgeoisie as a distinct class. It’s too much for a comment, but I think if the crisis of gender is to be addressed (and it is a problem), we shouldn’t dismiss it with an appeal to fidelity. Rather, the insecure bearded Calvinists represent the problem with the gender discourse from the ground-up. It’s a similar phenomenon in what we see in the Alt-Right as identity politics, or in how sexuality discourse has turned sodomy into questions of homosexuality. The grammar of these ideologies constrains our ability to perceive the world.