Newsletter #33: Wild at Heart and the White Knight Mentality
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White Knight Masculinity
One of the most powerful paradigms of masculinity promoted by the Evangelical church is that of the white knight, the man who rides to the rescue whenever someone, especially a woman, finds herself in trouble.
Perhaps the most pure expression of this is in John Eldredge’s 2001 New York Times bestselling book Wild at Heart. Though its popularity seems to have waned a bit, it is still probably the most widely read and influential Christian men’s book out there.
Here’s what Eldredge has to say about white knighting:
Once upon a time (as the story goes) there was a beautiful maiden, an absolute enchantress. She might be the daughter of the king or a common servant girl, but we know she is a princess at heart. She is young with a youth that seems eternal. Her flowing hair, her deep eyes, her luscious lips, her sculpted figure – she makes the rose blush for shame, the sun is pale compared to her light. Her heart is golden, her love as true as an arrow. But his lovely maiden is unattainable, the prisoner of an evil power who holds her captive in a dark tower. Only a champion may win her; only the most valiant, daring, and brave warrior has a chance of setting her free. Against all hope he comes; with cunning and raw courage he lays siege to the tower and the sinister one who holds her. Much blood is shed on both sides; three times the knight is thrown back, but three times he rises again. Eventually the sorcerer is defeated, the dragon falls, the giant is slain. The maiden is his. Through his valor he has won her heart. On horseback they ride off to his cottage by a stream in the woods for a rendezvous that gives passion and romance new meaning.
Why is this story so deep in our psyche? Ever little girl know the fable without ever being told. She dreams one day of prince will come. Little boys rehearse their part with wooden swords and cardboard shields. And one day the boy, now a young man, realizes that he wants to be the one to win the beauty. Fairy tales, literature, music, and movies all borrow from this mythic theme. Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Helen of Troy, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Arthur and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde. From ancient fables to the latest blockbuster, the theme of a strong man coming to rescue a beautiful woman is universal to human nature. It is written in our hearts, one of the core desires of every man and every woman.
This is white knighting in its purest form. And the idea that this is a universal call for all men is not an accidental misstatement. Eldredge is explicit not just here but elsewhere that being a white knight is one of three things a man needs to become truly himself; he needs a battle to fight, a beauty to rescue (i.e., white knighting), and an adventure to live.
Let me be clear: playing the white knight role can be one of the most dangerous and damaging things a man can do to himself. I will explain some of the many problems embedded in this vision of masculinity. You have to decide for yourself what to do with your life based on the totality of what you have seen, heard and been taught. But I have personally rejected white knight masculinity for myself.
White Knights Don’t Get the Girl
White knighting, as promoted by Eldredge and others in the church, has several embedded and deeply problematic elements.
The first, it almost goes without saying, is its pedestalization of women while at the same time patronizing them. On the one hand, women are to be viewed as princesses, something that goes well with the way secular society encourages young girls to think of themselves that way (e.g., Disney princess movies). On the other, women are to be viewed as helpless. Neither of these is true or healthy to believe.
From the standpoint of us men, a second substantive flaw is that white knighting is promoted as a strategy for romantic success. While in broader church teaching, white knighting can apply outside of romantic contexts, the very clear subtext, as here, is that white knighting will get you the girl.
The white knight then is similar to the servant leader. As I noticed in Masc #17 and elsewhere, Evangelical leaders teach that being a servant leader is not just something you are called to, but also a technique for making a woman like you and making your wife want to have sex with you. Hence phrases like “godliness is sexy” (Matt Chandler) or “the greatest aphrodisiac in marriage is kindness” (Don Carson).
In Masc #17 on the nature of attraction, I noted that godliness, kindness, etc. are positive qualities we should all cultivate, but they are attributes that indicate our suitability for marriage and do not generate attraction in women. Attributes like power and status, confidence and charisma, looks and money are what generate attraction. A man needs to both be attractive and be good marriage material. Too much of the church’s teaching conflates the two when they are in fact separate things.
Similarly, the white knight concept is viewed not only as a calling but as a technique for making you attractive to women. This is not just believed in the church but widely in the world as well since you see white knights everywhere. For example, if a man strongly disputes something a woman says on Twitter, you typically see a swarm of white knights swoop in to defend her, attack the guy, and tell her that she’s awesome and everything she said was totally awesome too.
The problem is that the effectiveness of techniques like white knighting depend entirely on the person doing them and how attractive they are already perceived as being. If an attractive man white knights, the woman may appreciate it. But if an unattractive man does it, she might well think it’s creepy.
It’s the same in the other direction too. Imagine you are back in high school and some girl slips a heartfelt letter confessing her love for you into your locker. Think about how you would have reacted if the person who had written it were very attractive vs. how you would have reacted if you thought she were very unattractive or if she were very unpopular.
This is actually perfectly illustrated in one of the pop culture references Eldredge uses to support his thesis. He writes:
And her childhood dreams of a knight in shining armor coming to rescue her are not girlish fantasies; they are the core of the feminine heart and the life she knows she was made for. So Zach comes back for Paula in An Officer and a Gentleman….
The film An Officer and a Gentleman tells the story of Zack Mayo (Richard Gere), a troubled Navy brat who, upon growing up, attends Aviation Officer Candidate School to try to become a Navy pilot. He dates a townie factory worker Paula (Debra Winger) during his stay there, and after finally making it through the course after many ups and downs, he comes to the factory to sweep her off her feet and carry her away in his new Navy officer dress uniform.
This is a nice romantic story. But Eldredge fails to note that in the same movie Zack has a pal in AOCS named Sid who also starts dating a townie. This girl suggests to him that she’s pregnant. He drops out of AOCS and proposes to her. She then confesses that she was never pregnant, and only said that to him because she wanted to marry a pilot. But now that he’s not going to be a pilot anymore, he’s of no further interest to her. Sid checks into a hotel and commits suicide.
While fictional, this film will hopefully give you a feel for the possible consequences of white knighting. You will note that in almost fictional Hollywood tales of successful white knighting, the man is or becomes high status and/or wealthy.
On a lighter note, Saturday Night Live did a skit in 2012 [warning: strong sexual themes] with Tom Brady illustrating this exact point about how behavior is perceived differently depending on who does it.
Bottom line: white knighting is an ineffective strategy for attracting women. Similar to the servant leader, it just doesn’t work because it’s built on false premises.
Women Aren’t Usually Held Captive by an Evil Sorcerer
In Eldredge’s scenarios, an external enemy (sometimes Satan) holds the woman captive. That is, to him, her problems are the result of outside, nefarious forces.
Now, it’s true that outside actors definitely can do is harm. We can be born with genetic defects for which we are not to blame. We can be the victim of a criminal and/or abuser. There clearly are cases in which we are essentially blameless in our own suffering.
But think about your own life and the problems you’ve had in it. How many of them were the result of outside forces versus your own sin or bad decisions? How many bad relationships, for example, have you been in where you had no share in the blame for it getting bad?
In reflecting on my own life, it’s very clear that the main source of most of my problems has been me. I sinned, I was lazy, I made bad decisions etc. Even where I would, on reflection, place a lot of blame on other people, I usually played some role myself in ending up where I did. I would submit that this is probably true of you as well – and critically that it’s also true for both men and women in general. People often bear a significant share of the blame for their own problem.
I did not see anywhere in the book where Eldredge suggests that the woman may have caused or contributed to her own problems. To be fair, he seems to suggest men’s problems mostly originate externally as well (e.g., the father wound). This makes him a step up from your average Evangelical in that he’s reasonably evenhanded.
If you apply even a modest amount of analysis to Evangelical teachings, you will see that they almost never hold women responsible for anything. It’s arguably the signature attribute of their teaching on gender. One thing I like to do when analyzing their books or sermon series is a simple quantitative analysis of things like how often they make negative statements about men vs. women, who is to blame in the illustrations they use, etc. They always overwhelmingly blame men, and seldom make any negative characterizations of women at all (though may have a handful of illustrations where the woman is at fault). This is easy for any of you to validate for himself, and this sort of analysis is something I’d very much encourage you do on your own. I also strongly recommend going back to read Masc #3 on men and the church which gives the history on this man bad-women good belief system.
I could provide a litany of examples here, but in the interest of space will only give one just to give you a flavor. It’s John Piper’s discussion of women in the military. Piper is a conservative Baptist, who, as you may recall from Masc #30 is one of the founders of complementarianism. He’s also probably the most prominent proponent of “thick” complementarianism in that he believes there are certain roles in society that should be filled only be men, including military combat roles. Obviously women have been integrated into almost every role in the military today, including combat ones. So who does he blame for this? Here’s what he wrote in 2007:
If I were the last man on the planet to think so, I would want the honor of saying no woman should go before me into combat to defend my country. A man who endorses women in combat is not pro-woman; he’s a wimp. He should be ashamed. For most of history, in most cultures, he would have been utterly scorned as a coward to promote such an idea… What cowardly men do we thank for this collapse of chivalry? Browne suggests, “There are a lot of military people who think women in combat is a horrible idea, but it’s career suicide to say it.” In other words, let the women die.
He later followed up by saying, “The exhortation is a good one that we not minimize the sacrifice of the American women who have died in combat, even if we think their presence on the front lines is a powerful commentary on the cowardice of our male military and political leaders.” And in 2014 he wrote, “Here we go again — more fallout from the male cowardice that won’t stand up to the politically correct shamers, but instead countenances arming our women for frontline combat.”
I think it’s fair to say that men played a significant role in women coming to serve in military combat roles. They were the Presidents. They were the Secretaries of Defense. They were the heads of the services. Many men did in fact help drive this through. Even back 2013, an overwhelming 73% of men nationally supported integration of women into combat roles, and it’s surely even higher today.
But if you read those pieces, you’ll see that Piper assigns zero responsibility to women. (He says sin “tells women to be coquettes or controllers” but you’ll note he never says women actually do those things). In fact, he goes out of his way to talk about how brave they are, how capable they are (e.g., black belts in karate), etc. He treats women in combat strictly as a result of cowardly men not wanting to fight and thus pushing women into their place. Is this a remotely accurate characterization of reality? I don’t think so.
Also, if one believes, as Piper does, that the Bible prohibits women in military combat, then wouldn’t women who enlist themselves in those roles be sinning? Interestingly, he doesn’t address that point at all.
I’m not cherry picking here. I’ve read everything I could find by him on women in the military and have never seen him assign any responsibility to women in this. It’s an example of how pastors will issue utterly vicious public condemnations of men as a gender while doing contortions in order to avoid blaming women for anything. And keep in mind, Piper is one of the most conservative Evangelical leaders out there, not some male feminist.
This is an enormous problem when combined with white knighting. Because it assumes women are entirely blameless for their own problems, it can lead to men simply bailing out women for the consequences of their own sin and mistakes, thus becoming co-dependent enablers.
Imagine your brother is an alcoholic who won’t get help. If you bail him out every time he is arrested, give him money every time he’s broke, and chauffer him everywhere after he loses his license, are you actually being loving and helping him? Of course not. You certainly do want to help him, but if you don’t have a proper diagnosis of the underlying cause of his problems, you can’t do that.
It’s the same with women as with men. In order to genuinely help them, the root of the trouble needs to be found. Sometimes the problem is external, but sometimes it’s internal. Sometimes it’s a mixture of both. Sometimes she can take care of it herself, thank you very much. Sometimes she could perhaps use help. In any case, the idea that an evil sorcerer is holding women captive is not helpful.
Men Should Seek Out the Highest Quality Wife They Can Find
A fourth problem – and possibly the most serious – is that white knight masculinity encourages men to marry deeply troubled women as an act of redemption. If every man needs a beauty to rescue, then a man who marries a woman who has her act together – and plenty of women do – is failing to truly be a man.
In fairness to Eldredge, he believes that every man and every woman are wounded, and thus every woman is potentially a beauty to rescue. Nevertheless, his description leads to a very bad pattern of thinking.
It’s striking to compare the advice given to men with that given to women. Men are frequently encouraged to consider women whom they might ordinarily rule out because of various red flags, whereas women in church are generally cautioned against going on rescue missions for troubled men. If a woman is dating a guy who’s a recovering drug addict or who is an underemployed aspiring indie rocker, she’s generally warned against being with him or at least to be cautious and “guard your heart.” Even if the man is merely insufficiently “on fire for God” he can be deemed a bad match because it would cause a godly woman to be “unequally yoked.” (I have personal experience with that one).
Women are by and large told that they should have extremely high standards in a man they are going to marry. I completely endorse high standards. Because marriage is so serious, and creating a successful marriage is hard today, women very much should hold men to a high standard and try to find the best husband they can. Some men just aren’t good marriage material.
The same goes in reverse. For men, it may even be more important, given that women initiate about 70% of divorces. (Don’t expect to read that stat in a Christian marriage book). Men should be looking to marry the highest quality woman they can find, and should have high standards for the woman they marry. Contrary to what you might read on the internet, there are plenty of high quality women out there.
It’s true that both men and women need to consider their standards in light of the pool of possible mates they have available. We can definitely price ourselves out of the market by setting too high a standard. Nobody, man or woman, is perfect. We all have some flaws. But there has to be some threshold below which we won’t compromise. And every man should be seeking out the highest quality match he can find, not looking for a woman to rescue.
Final Thoughts on White Knighting
In summary, white knighting is a vision of women that is both idealizing (idolizing?) and patronizing, doesn’t work as a strategy for attracting a woman, assumes women are always blameless for their own problems, and may well lead you into making a bad marriage match for yourself.
For these reasons I reject it as a paradigm, with a few caveats. The first is that if we are already married, then our wife’s problems are indeed our problems too. And there’s no dumping your wife just because she runs into problems in life, as could well happen to us too.
Also, the Bible does say that we should pursue justice, defend the weak, etc., so there’s clearly some role for what you might think of as white knighting – so long as it’s done in light of all the other admonitions in the Bible such as the innumerable calls to be wise, to “give not thy strength unto women,” etc. We are called to give to the poor too, but the Didache, the earliest church catechism, says to “let your mercy gift sweat in your hand until you know who to give it to.” I doubt there’s a single pastor in New York who regularly hands out cash gifts to panhandlers on the street. The Bible consistently warns against folly.
Deciding to intervene in someone else’s problems is always a risky affair, and the consequences if things go badly can fall both on them and on us too. Any physical intervention in a violent situation brings the possibility of death, maiming, or getting sent to prison. Running into a burning building to try to recuse someone and you could be killed yourself. Try to help someone with an addiction, and we could become co-dependent enablers – or even fall into addiction ourselves. Marry the wrong woman and you could end up miserable. We need to take what we are doing seriously, counting the potential costs for both parties, and being humble about our ability to know what’s going on.
I myself have occasionally taken action that could be construed as white knighting. For example, a while back I was riding the subway and a panhandler would not stop very aggressively harassing a fiftysomething woman sitting across from me. I spoke up and let it be known that he had to stop. He yelled at me a bit, but finally moved on. Things worked out that time. But you never know when things are going to quickly escalate to places you never anticipated or imagined. And you’ll note there was zero romantic context.
I would say that it is explicitly in male-female situations where, like friendship (see Masc #25), white knighting can get especially dicey because our romantic interest clouds our judgment. If you want to go there, you’d better count the cost first.
If you want to date or marry someone who has a lot of problems as an attempt to redemption, then that’s your decision. Just don’t expect her to reciprocate it by treating it as some unwritten, never stated contract that says she’ll love you forever if you do.
What Eldredge Gets Right
Although he is dead wrong on white knighting, I don’t want to be too harsh on Eldredge. There are other aspects of his book that are quite good. In particular, I want to applaud his clear distinction between a man’s mission and his wife.
Every man needs a mission – a battle to fight, as Eldredge puts it. But he should not turn his woman into his mission. He writes:
I have counseled many young men to break up with the woman they were dating because they had made her their life. She was the sun of his universe, around which he orbited. A man needs a bigger orbit than a woman. He needs a mission, a life purpose, and he needs to know his name.
This is a critical distinction. A man’s mission orients the household outward, towards fulfilling the Creation Mandate and the Great Commission. But if a man’s mission is his wife, that orients the household inward towards itself.
This is something that too many Evangelical teachers get wrong. They implicitly (perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not) tell men that their mission as a man is their wife and children. This is actually one of the key structures of complementarianism. That system usually restricts gender polarity to marriage/family and the church. Hence for any man who is not a minister, his masculinity as such can only be expressed in terms of mission to his wife and children.
Lest you think I am reading something into it that isn’t there, here’s an excerpt from John Piper’s opening chapter in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in which he defines masculinity and femininity from a complementarian perspective:
Here we take the definition of masculinity, a phrase at a time and unfold its meaning and implications.
AT THE HEART OF MATURE MASCULINITY IS A SENSE OF BENEVOLENT RESPONSIBILITY TO LEAD, PROVIDE FOR AND PROTECT WOMEN IN WAYS APPROPRIATE TO A MAN’S DIFFERING RELATIONSHIPS.
“AT THE HEART OF….”
This phrase signals that the definitions are not exhaustive. There is more to masculinity and femininity, but there is not less. We believe this is at the heart of what true manhood means, even if there is a mystery to our complementary existence that we will never exhaust. [caps in original]
While acknowledging there’s more to manhood, this defines masculinity exclusively in terms of relationship to women, dramatically restricting the scope of masculine vocation. The man’s mission thus becomes his woman, ultimately expressed as servant leadership, white knighting, etc.
Similarly, in Tim and Kathy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage, they share the guidelines for decision making they use in their own marriage, the first of which is:
The husband’s authority (like the Son’s over us) is never used to please himself but only to serve the interests of his wife. Headship does not mean a husband simply “makes all the decisions,” nor does it mean he gets his way in every disagreement. Why? Jesus never did anything to please himself (Romans 15:2-3). A servant-leader must sacrifice his wants and needs to please and build up his partner (Ephesians 5:21ff). [emphasis in original]
Note the choice here between a husband pleasing himself and his wife. Because the selfish approach is obviously unbiblical, it requires a man to please his wife, thus defining a man’s mission as pleasing and building up his wife. (Elsewhere in the book, in a chapter on the mission of marriage, Keller explicitly writes, “What then is marriage for? It is for helping each other to become our future glory selves, the new creations that God will eventually make us.” That is, the mission of marriage is internal to the household. It is an inward focused mission).
But the opposition presented here is clearly a false dichotomy. There are many other places besides his wife and himself that a husband might direct his authority. For example, when Tim Keller used his authority to make the decision to leave his professorship in Philadelphia to start Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, did he do it to please himself or to serve the interests of his wife (who had severe misgivings about it)? Neither. Instead, he did it to pursue mission. (I would also note that Kathy was heavily involved in this mission as well. The mission became that of their entire household – and a very successful one, too).
Clearly the fact that he chose mission in this case indicates he doesn’t really believe in the self-wife dichotomy. So possibly the intent of these folks is not to define masculinity in that way, but their rhetoric has that effect. At a minimum it’s very sloppy for people who are regularly touted as great communicators. Eldredge is to be commended for not falling into that trap and specifically warning against conflating a man’s mission in the world and his responsibility to his wife.
Ultimately the servant leadership concept, by defining leadership exclusively as a man’s service to his wife and children, makes a man’s woman into his mission, and thus orients his household inwardly and away from the true mission their household should be pursuing. Not good.
Daily Mail: Good Samaritan spends two weeks in a maximum security prison after woman whose car he helped fix falsely accused him of indecent assault – This is recent example of the potential real life consequences of white knighting. Now obviously this is a rare event, and I would never argue that we should always make decisions fearfully in light of the very worst possible outcome. But pastors today need to seriously grapple with what it means to live as a young man in a world when this sort of thing can and does happen and how that should be incorporated into their teachings. (This risk of false accusation is something that black men have long had to deal with, by the way).
Quartz: 70% of top male earners in the US have a spouse who stays home – I could say a lot about this piece, but will just once again observe that the actual elite live much different lives personally than they promote for others.
NYT: Where Are the Socially Conservative Women in this Fight? – This conservative wants to find a modern day Phyllis Schlafly. The problem is that public activism self-selects for people with a marketplace orientation. Women who truly want a “traditional” lifestyle are probably living it, not trying to figure out how to get published in the media or to be an activist.
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After 1800, the religiosity of women was paramount to the evangelical scheme for moral revolution. They were regarded as having special qualities which placed them at the fulcrum of family sanctity.
Though the female evangelical narrative structure might vary in these ways, there were uniform characteristics. First, women’s conversions were usually taken for granted; the issue was their ability to choose a godly husband or reform an ungodly one. Second, women’s spiritual destiny was virtually never portrayed as a battle with temptation or real sin; fallen women did not appear as central characters, and none of the usual temptations like drink or gambling ever seemed to be an issue with them. The problem is the man, sometimes the father, but more commonly the boyfriend, fiancé, or husband, who is a drinker, a gambler, keeps the ‘bad company’ of ‘rough lads’ and is commonly a womanizer. The man is the agency of the virtuous woman’s downfall; he does not make her bad, but does make her suffer and poor. She is not always portrayed as having undergone a major conversion experience, but to have emerged from childhood into a disciplined and natural ‘goodness.’
In evangelical stories about piety, women appeared throughout as good but not always converted; men, by contrast, almost always appeared as in a perilous sinful state until near the end. Men were the problem, given manifold temptations: drink (nearly always), gambling (increasingly after 1890), and ‘rough’ in overall cultural terms. They lived dissipated lives which caused suffering and ruination to mothers, wives, and children. Nowhere did evangelical literature have such a powerful influence in the public domain, including in ‘secular’ fiction, as in its demonization of men. [emphasis added]
– Callum Brown, The Death of Christian Britain