Newsletter #22: Be Above Reproach
Welcome back to the Masculinist, the monthly newsletter about the intersection of masculinity and Christianity.
On This Father’s Day
Father’s Day is this Sunday. It’s a special one for me because for the first time in my life, I’m a father. Be sure to tell your father how much you appreciate him. And my best wishes to all the fathers out there.
I’d like to put a challenge out to any pastors reading this blog. Please show unconditional honor to fathers in church this Sunday. There’s no need to do anything special for Father’s Day, but at least don’t do anything negative.
I propose the following rule: if you haven’t said it about mothers on Mother’s Day, don’t say it about fathers on Father’s Day. I’ve never once heard a pastor ever say a negative thing about mothers on Mother’s Day – never a mention of those abandoned by their mother, abused by their mother, hurt by their mother, etc. Nor have I ever heard a pastor make a Mother’s Day wisecrack with moms as the butt of the joke or otherwise reduced insignificance. So I would propose taking the same approach on Father’s Day and avoiding all these things.
The Bible says that we should give “honor to whom honor is due.” (Rom 13:7). I would submit to you that fathers are due honor, not dishonor, on Father’s Day.
The Bankruptcy of the Elite
You may have noticed an apparent contradiction in what I’m doing with the Masculinist. The upper-middle-class of America, say the top 20%, are doing pretty well in creating successful marriages and lives. The problems are concentrated in the bottom 80%, with high out of wedlock birth rates, the “NEET” problem, etc. Yet this newsletter is obviously targeted at the top 20% type highly educated people.
Why is that? I will explain it.
If you’re familiar with my body of work, you’d probably assume that I’m a populist. But I’m not. Governance by the masses is not a good thing, as has been well known since the time of ancient Athens. The American Founders designed a system specifically intended to avoid this happening.
Advanced societies have always been administered by an elite class – mandarins, scribes, the “talented tenth”, the “9.9%” recently profiled by the Atlantic, my top 20% upper-middle-class figure, etc. Sometimes there are multiple classes (rulers, administrators, warriors, priests, etc.), but a minority runs the show.
The average person is capable of managing his own affairs (though modernity makes this harder than it used to be because powerful market forces he can’t control or predict now determine so many important things). He’s also competent at small-scale undertakings. But the Average Joe is not qualified to run modern major organizations and governments. I’m not aware of any historical example of a successful major government-run by that profile of a person.
However, contrary to popular belief, populism is not our problem today. Our problem is that the American elite, of which many of us could be considered members at some level, is corrupt and inept. There are many individual good individuals and leaders in this group, but collectively our elite is bankrupt and has failed. Only a failed elite could have produced a President Donald Trump. They (we) first had to fail before he could even be a possibility, and then they had to be incompetent once again to have been unable to stop him despite throwing everything at it.
Consider just a few things.
The US economy has dramatically underperformed since 2000. Obama was the first president since Hoover to never once hit 3% GDP growth. Bush got it one year I believe but overall had a likewise dismal record. Real median incomes have declined since then. During the 80s and 90s, job growth averaged 1.9% per year. Since 2000 the average has been 0.6% per year. (Recent years have been better).
Trust in all institutions, especially government, has dramatically declined. There’s widespread agreement even among the elite that Washington is dysfunctional. Heck, I’ve had people who work on Capitol Hill tell me directly that the public’s low opinion of Congress is entirely justified.
Repeated foreign policy debacles, especially the Iraq War, but also Libya, the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, etc.
Banks got bailed out during the financial crash, and no bankers when to jail for it other than a few insider traders and Ponzi schemers. Financial crime on an industrial scale continues to go unpunished. A single mom who writes a bad check is in big trouble while execs at Wells Fargo get away with creating millions of bogus accounts.
The casting couch and pedophilia are historic tropes about Hollywood we now know are true. Harvey Weinstein and many others have been exposed as sexual predators. But remember, the Academy gave an Oscar and standing ovation for Roman Polanski in absentia in 2003 as he was unable to enter the country to attend lest he be arrested for having drugged and sodomized a 13-year-old girl. I suspect we’ve barely scratched the surface of what been happening there.
Media has likewise not crowned itself in glory. They have their own abuse problems (Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, etc). But they’ve also got a serious content problem. For example, they totally blew the election, yet nobody seems to have paid any price for this and some of the reporters in question actually got promotions. Obama staffer Ben Rhodes boasted, “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
Science is also increasingly a troubled enterprise, with scientists themselves often bemoaning what’s been called the “replication crisis.” A recent WSJ column observed, “For a 2015 article in Science, independent researchers tried to replicate 100 prominent psychology studies and succeeded with only 39% of them. Further from the spotlight is a lot of equally flawed research that is often more consequential. In 2012 the biotechnology firm Amgen tried to reproduce 53 ‘landmark’ studies in hematology and oncology. The company could only replicate six. Are doctors basing serious decisions about medical treatment on the rest?” You may have just read that the famous “marshmallow test” study essentially failed to replicate.
Even the mighty US military isn’t immune. Multiple Navy ships in the Pacific have recently collided with civilian vessels. A recent review by the Navy found significant concerns with the navigational skills of 85% of its junior officers.
UN aid organizations have been embroiled in repeated scandals, including a recent case of a sex for food scandal. According to the Times of London, “Food, oil, access to education and plastic sheeting for shelters were traded for sex, with families feeling that they had to give up their teenage daughters to abusers ‘to make ends meet.’” And don’t forget it was also the UN that brought cholera to Haiti.
Our universities are increasingly hotbeds of lunacy even as tuition soars and they saddle many of their students with heavy debts – total student loan debt exceeds total credit card debt and total auto loan debt – that can’t even be discharged in bankruptcy.
But even more importantly, the elite has broken faith with the people they are supposed to be leading. This has been written about at least since the early 90s, with folks like Robert Reich writing about the “secession of the successful.” We have a divergent society in which the leadership classes have prospered like never before at the same time much of society has fallen into ruin. At the same time, our elite congratulates themselves for being morally superior to the benighted masses. Michael Shellenberger recently wrote about this in California, which he compares to the science fiction dystopia Elysium where “the rich have fled to a luxury satellite orbiting Earth while the poor toil in dangerous conditions below.”
True, there’s a lot that’s going right in our world that shouldn’t be dismissed. Also true, leaders of the past were not always such great people. Outright corruption was far more common in politics in the past, for example, and their sexual escapades often evaded public notice at the time.
Yet for all their faults, those leaders built this country. They settled it, built the railroads, built the electrical, water, and telecom systems we enjoy today. They won world wars and fostered postwar peace. They created the jet age and put a man on the moon. They created the American middle class. Today’s leaders can’t even upgrade the signals on the New York subways those previous generations installed back in the 1930s. And they’ve presided over a severe decline in social conditions for much of society while continuing to live better and better themselves.
The leadership of the church has been no better. The large-scale Catholic sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups, still not fully addressed, are the paradigmatic example. In the Evangelical church, many pastors have fallen due to sexual immorality, and there’s been no accountability for failure (Masc #7) even for epic leadership fiascoes like purity culture and Mark Driscoll (who had an army of high-profile enablers). James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World basically says that the Protestant church’s various theories of change were flat out wrong. But the same people are still in charge. Many of them have been very successful personally, but overall it’s hard to say it’s been a great run for the church in recent decades.
Rather than beating back populism, the problem facing America is fundamentally one of institutional and cultural renewal among the elite. That is why my newsletter is aimed at people like us.
Be Above Reproach
How do we create a worthy elite? I don’t know. But I do know that the first place to start is with ourselves.
The Bible tells us that we should first be accountable for ourselves. Christ famously said that we should first take the log out of our own eyes then we will see clearly to be able to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye. Paul said that he who is not willing to work shouldn’t eat, that “if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself,” and that those who refuse to provide for their own family have denied the faith and are worse than unbelievers. Self-responsibility may not be a path to salvation, but it should be a consequence of it.
So how then should we as men live personally in light of what’s going on in the world?
Again, let’s go back to Paul. He lays out qualifications for leadership in 1 Timothy and Titus. He writes in 1 Timothy 3:1-2, “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer [bishop], it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach.” Likewise in Titus 1:7 he writes, “For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward.” Of deacons he says in 1 Timothy 3:8-10, “Deacons likewise must be men of dignity…these men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach.”
Paul did not hesitate to credential himself by citing his own demonstrated character, such as in 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12, previewed in 1:5 where he writes, “You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.”
That seems pretty straightforward to me – and a good principle for how all of us should aspire to “be above reproach” in how we live our lives even if we don’t want to be a church officer.
I’m attempting to apply that principle to my own life in four key ways:
The pursuit of universal obedience to Christ
Cultivating virtues and competences
Discerning, aligning myself with, and speaking the truth
Living congruently with my beliefs and statements
I don’t necessarily expect these to get me a good reputation in the world. It may even be the opposite. (Paul in Titus talks about leaders having a good reputation in secular society, but my impression is that this is about the character, not content, as Christ and Paul both were in high conflict with non-Christian elites). I don’t want to gratuitously pick a fight with anyone, but I’m much more concerned about being above reproach when it comes to what God thinks than I am what the world does.
Universal Obedience. 2 Corinthians 7:1 says, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” And 2 Timothy 2:21-22, “Now therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” In John Owen’s Mortification of Sin he lists two preconditions for mortifying any sin: conversion and the pursuit of universal obedience. He says, “Without sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience, there is no mortification of any one perplexing lust to be obtained.”
I see a lot of Christians today who are very conformed to the world, have a lax attitude towards sin and Christian duty in their own lives (as long as they aren’t doing anything “really bad”), aren’t people of prayer and fasting, aren’t serving the church, etc. There’s a lot of room for improvement.
I’m not perfect myself, but I’m working as hard as I can. I want to be “all in” in terms of how I am personally living my life. Just as one example a few years ago I realized that I took a very cavalier attitude towards traffic laws like speed limits. If we are really supposed to “be in subjection to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1), could I really justify this? I decided No, and now when I drive I obey speed limits. This might seem like a pedantic point, but I see tons of lax behavior in Christians in this world. Today in the Evangelical world we tend to view obeying God’s law too much as legalism. But for me personally, I can’t see how I can justify using a “gospel-centered” approach to life as a justification for a lax approach to obedience, even in the small things.
Universal obedience is also the original “Benedict Option.” In the words of Christ that conclude the Sermon on the Mount He says:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.
It’s hearing the words of Christ and actually acting on them (i.e., obedience) that creates the sure foundation to survive any floods that come our way.
Virtues and Competencies. Think about the kinds of things Aristotle talked about in the Nicomachean Ethics, or the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice, but I use virtue here in the classical sense as encompassing qualities of personal excellence beyond the purely moral. Some virtues, such as the theological ones of faith, hope, and charity, overlap with the Bible. But others, such as perhaps physical fitness, are less directly Bible-related, hence a separate category.
Similarly, I want to become increasingly competent in my undertakings, to be a better writer, analyst, etc. In Masc #2 I talked about making a practice of continually learning new skills. If you look at the elite leadership figures that have managed to gain respect, it is often because they have shown to be highly competent in their undertakings. Think about someone like former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, or former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. Or Steve Jobs. Obviously, they didn’t succeed 100% of the time. But they were far above the average leader we have today.
Not only do I personally want to acquire these capabilities and competences, I want to pass them along to others, and use whatever I have acquired to help build others up behind me. Of all the people above me in life I’ve known personally, the ones I have the most respect for and loyalty to are those who made it their personal business not just to get personally higher and better, but to bring many others up under them.
No one should be leading if he lacks virtue and competence, so we should cultivate both.
Discern, Speak, and Live the Truth. This is a huge problem, probably the biggest problem, in society and the church. One of the big reasons I started the Masculinist is because the church is not telling people the truth about too many things, such as attraction.
The elite of the Evangelical world are taking their cues from the secular elite consensus, which defines their truth on way too many topics. But that consensus is full of falsehoods, which is one reason our elite have failed.
Single motherhood is an inferior form of child rearing compared to the two-parent family. Gender is not a completely socially constructed (though obviously has a social dimension). Being a “servant leader” does not attract women. Not getting married is a long term loser for most people. We need to have the courage to acknowledge these and many other truths, live by them, and especially to speak them. Charles Murray’s famous quip that the American elite “doesn’t preach what they practice” is on point. At some level they actually do understand some truth and live by it personally, but they speak something else entirely. At a minimum we had better be telling our families and church community the things we’ve figured out.
Remember the first guiding principle of this blog: Solzhenitsyn’s famous dictum: live not by lies. Be a source of truth not falsehood.
Congruence. In Masc #14 I talked about the work of Nassim Taleb, which profoundly upends much of the falsehood put out by modern elites, and whose implications are profoundly favorable to Christianity.
One of his key principles, and one I’ve adopted for this newsletter, is skin in the game. Only take advice from people who have skin the game. Similarly, don’t tell other people things you aren’t personally doing yourself. I call this more broadly congruence. Our lives have to be congruent with our beliefs and professions. If we are Christian, we need to be living it, for example (i.e., universal obedience).
When prominent older women who married young and devoted their efforts primarily to family and supporting their husband’s career preach lean-in feminism to young women, that’s not congruent. When retirement age white pastors who have no intention of going away dispense lectures on the need to diversify the leadership of Evangelicalism, that’s not congruent.
There’s certainly a place for people realizing that they sinned, made mistakes, and should have make different choices. There are plenty of areas I’d tell people not to do what I did. But if I want to do that I need to be clear that I admit my wrongs or mistakes, and that I’ve brought forth fruit in keeping with repentance. That is, to the extent that it’s still relevant or possible, I’ve changed my actual pattern of life and embarked on a new path beyond one that was simply opportunistic. I’ve cited the famous “Marry Him!” article from the Atlantic before. This in one respect is a good example, as Lori Gottleib candidly admits her own prior choices were poor. But it’s not clear she’s really fundamentally changed her life priorities. She appears to have deliberately conceived a child without being married, and doesn’t talk about what she’s doing to try to prioritize finding a husband now. She appears to believe her mistake was a largely tactical one in failing to get a husband on lockdown early rather than any larger pattern of living.
Preach what you practice. Practice what you preach. Have skin in the game. Be congruent.
I quote some Bible verses but the above is not a theological tract. It’s a statement of how I aspire to live in this world and become part of a more worthy educated leadership class in America and the church. I would encourage you to talk to your own pastor about how to interpret and apply these scriptures.
While I’m concerned about capabilities, I’m more concerned about character. Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t list intelligence as a qualification for leadership. It lists character and demonstrated competence in leading a man’s own household. The smartest people in the room, like the Pharisees, often didn’t possess or respond to the truth the truth. God has “chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the things that are wise.” That’s something that should humble those of us who like to think of ourselves as oh so very educated and smart.
This is not a complete system. I don’t talk here about keeping faith with the broader whole. Nor do I address institutions, though plan to in a future installment. So stayed tune for future thoughts.
To make fundamental change in the church and broader society, the educated leadership class must collectively and individually become worthy. That starts with taking responsibility for ourselves and being above reproach and competent in our undertakings.
A Follow-Up on Singleness
After last month’s Masc #21, a pastor wrote to me asking how the church should respond to the “demographic crisis” it faces, namely the significant imbalance of female to male attendees in church. That makes it impossible for all Christian women to find Christian husbands and in this person’s view incentivizes some poor male behaviors such as an unwillingness to commit.
This is a very fair question. At the macro level, the demographic crisis is real. It’s a problem. The most critical component of any solution is getting more men into church. That’s one of the things I would like to help accomplish with this newsletter. As I detailed in Masc #3, the church has long been actively hostile to men, so it’s no surprise men are staying away. And as my series on attraction is showing (stay tuned for the final installment, probably next month), the church is also giving men false information about relationships. Given the primal nature of our relations with the opposite sex, once Christian men discover that they’ve been fed falsehoods on this topic – which given the ever-increasing number of places you can find basic truth on the subject, including even from Jordan Peterson, will happen for a significant number of people at some point – this will severely discredit the faith for them.
At the micro-level, my focus in that piece was on big city churches. In those, there are vast numbers of singles, few of which appear to be aggressively seeking marriage. In other environments, such as some smaller city or suburban churches, the demographic problem can rear its head. There are places where the majority of people in the church are married, and the singles can feel left out in the cold. Some of these singles, men and women, are less attractive, are socially awkward, etc. which adds complications. (I mentioned before a story about an Orthodox Jewish woman in Brooklyn who served as a matchmaker for awkward singles in that community, and how we really don’t have much like that going on).
So in some places I do think there is a legitimate demographic problem. So what do you do about it?
At the church level, we have to bring in more men. At the individual level we have to recognize the odds and act accordingly. Last month I told guys that they need to be aware that every year that goes by the supply of high quality marriage prospects goes down. I do think men need to step up and pursue marriage and commit, and think they should give serious thought to doing it sooner rather than later. For women, it’s even worse. It’s a game of musical chairs where several folks may not get a seat. The stone cold reality is that this environment is a big incentive to move fast to secure your place.
The problem is that the contemporary life scripts being sold by society explicitly discourage acting fast, and pooh-pooh the consequences of failing to land the plane to marriage and children. These scripts tell young women to pursue education, career, romantic excitement/sex, and personal cultivation first (e.g., travelling the world), then find a nice guy to settle down with later. I’ll mention again this passage from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s New York Times #1 best selling book Lean In: “When looking for a life partner, my advice to women is date [translation: have sex with] all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys. But do not marry them. The things that make the bad boys sexy do not make them good husbands. When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner.” In other words, spend time playing the field, then after having your fun, look for a real marriage candidate.
You see this all over the place. Twitter user @c_szydlowski, who labels herself a “feminist antichrist” and whose home page banner consist of the word “Vagina” in a huge font, tweeted, “LADIES IMAGINE THIS: you stop idealizing marriage and start acting like a 23-year-old with her whole life ahead of her. You get an education, you travel the world, and you stop assuming your life starts and ends with a husband.” This tweet got 63,000 retweets and 192,000 likes.
Additionally, there’s a constant stream of material trying to convince women (and men too) that it will be a-ok if they end up not having kids. Again on Twitter, @emtreas had to this to say: “Ladies, imagine this. It’s 15 years from now, and you have no kids. You’re the cool wine aunt that occasionally comes back to the country for a brief visit before leaving for another long, exotic vacation. You have no commitments, and a suspicious amount of money.” – 68,000 retweets, 235,000 likes. This is the cultural script that’s being sold to women today.
Think that’s just a tweet and so not important? How about a 2013 Time cover:
Or a recent Washington Post article:
Frantic and apologizing, overwhelmed between staff meetings and gymnastics, shamed for bottle-feeding, booted for breast- feeding, passed over for promotions, denied on the day-care list — isn’t this what you’ve always dreamed of? No thanks, they’re saying, to today’s lovely vision of motherhood. And in huge numbers
Here’s the answer: choices. For the first time in human history, women truly have them. A lot of women don’t feel pressured to have kids they don’t want…But can we please stop — in research schematics and at the Thanksgiving table — wondering about women’s wombs? They made a choice, thank you.
Some people who follow these scripts often don’t discover the reality until it’s too late. It reminds me of Proverbs 7 about the man seeking the adulteress that says he was “a young man lacking sense” who “hastens to the snare” because “he does not know it will cost him his life.” Only in this case it applies to women as well.
Back to our church demographics question. I wonder how many of these singles have been aggressively looking for marriage since say college? Some probably had, but from what I see around me plenty didn’t and instead were following this cultural life script.
The Washington Post writer gets it correct in this respect: people make choices. This is a free country and people can do anything they want. I fully support the right of both women and men in contemporary America to make their own. But are they making informed choices? Are church leaders handing out realtalk on life, marriage, and kids, or just a baptized version of the secular life script? Are pastors and those in spiritual leadership warning the people under their care about the possible future consequences of these scripts? When people do follow those scripts and the bad consequences come, are they willing to deliver bitter truths to people who don’t want to hear them, or will they instead only call on others to change to mitigate those consequences?
This is what I’m taking about with the elite and having the courage to tell the truth. It doesn’t take any courage to beat up men and tell them they should be pursuing the single women in their church for marriage or that they should man up and commit. It doesn’t take very much courage to write an op-ed saying that the church needs to change to better accommodate the growing number of singles. But start delivering tough messages to women and you might end up with a big problem on your hands. But we have to have the courage to take that risk, so that people have the information they need to make the best decision for themselves in light of the full truth and knowledge of the range of possible outcomes.
Again, I thought this was an excellent and very fair question that pastor sent so thanks to him for doing so. In short, yes there are demographic challenges but that’s not the end of the story.
Times Higher Education: Should we be worried that women outnumber men on campus?
Dan DeCarlo: Ryan Gosling, Incel Prophet
Institute for Family Studies: Of Boys and Toys
When child psychologist Lisa Serbin and colleagues studied toddler girls and boys, they found that little children—boys especially—had barely a clue which gender they belonged to, even when the psychologists used the simplest nonverbal prompts. Kids under two years of age score only slightly above chance in assigning themselves or other kids to the correct gender. Nevertheless, Serbin’s group found that children’s toy preferences are firmly in place by this age, especially among boys. When the experimenters offered boys a truck or a doll, most boys chose the truck. In fact, boys preferred trucks over dolls more strongly than girls preferred dolls over trucks. That ought to be surprising if you buy into gender schema theory because 18-month-old girls were more likely than boys to be able to classify themselves and other children by gender.
“I have to tell you, it’s our goal on this Father’s Day weekend to lift you up and encourage you. And I have to tell you from history I’ve learned that often Father’s Day is one of the worst days that dads can ever choose to go to church. Because often it’s the only time churches feel like they’re going to have the ears of dads and so what they do is they plan to beat them up royally for all they’re not doing right. Ever been to one of those Father’s Day services? Oh man, I have. In fact, here in the early days of my ministry here, you know what we’d do? Oh man, we planned. We planned for you guys. And then what we did is we’d sing ‘Cats in the Cradle and the Silver Spoon.’ And we’d talk about how you have so royally blown it, the world has gone to hell in a hand basket, and then we’d try and help you recover. And we wondered why dads didn’t like Fathers Day at our church.
“We don’t do that anymore. What we want this to be is an encouragement to you, we want this to lift you up.”
– Pastor Brad Powell, Northridge Church (Detroit area). From a sermon on Abraham in a series called “Unlikely Heroes,” June 21, 2015