Newsletter #39: We Can Only Go Forward Because There Is No Way Back
Welcome back to the Masculinist, the newsletter about how we live as Christian men and as the church in the modern world.
Periodically you’ll see someone post photos of graduating classes from Cairo University over the years. These show very western looking grads up through the 1970s, with nary a hijab in sight. By the 1990s hijabs are on the scene and by the 2000s almost all the women are wearing them.
While the site I linked above is on the left, it’s usually conservatives who do this. They do it to try to make a number of points critical of contemporary Islam. One is that there’s a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism that poses a threat. Another is to suggest that wearing the hijab is a modern thing without the continuous pedigree in Islamic society that is claimed.
I look at this and instead see an example of what I call “reactionary affect.” I define reactionary affect as the reclamation of historic symbols and practices, usually shorn of their historic context, for use in the present time, generally in response to perceived threats. (Other people have used the same term and may have a different definition).
Many Muslims saw, correctly, that Western modernity posed a threat to their religion and traditional societies. This re-adoption of hijabs in spheres where they had disappeared was one of many forms of reaction against that genuine threat.
But reactionary effect is something I see rising in the American Christian church as well, across a wide range of domains. I mentioned it in Masc #30 when I predicted there would be more Christian groups explicitly embracing patriarchy. But it’s already widespread in many other areas.
The most notable case is the rise of greater liturgical sensibility in Evangelical churches. The Catholic parallel to this is the increasing popularity of the Latin mass or Eastern liturgies (e.g., Melkite) in the Catholic Church.
Some of this is normal pendulum swinging. I always say that every company is always doing one of two things, centralizing or decentralizing. We should expect things like degree of emphasis on liturgy to oscillate back and forth. But this is more than that. Protestants are more likely to observe Lent, for example, than say three decades ago. And witness, for example, Russell Moore calling for churches to serve communion every week in his new book. “In my church tradition, it is of endless frustration to me how many of our churches, despite the clear New Testament practice of weekly communion, come to the Lord’s Supper once a quarter, or even less often.” When a diehard Southern Baptist starts advocating for weekly communion, you know something is going on.
In addition to weekly communion as an example of Protestants embracing more liturgical practices, it’s also emblematic of how many Protestants are taking a higher view of the sacraments today. My impression, for example, is that the Federal Vision controversy in Reformed circles was in part related to a group of people pushing a more robust view of the sacraments. While Federal Vision was rejected, a greater concern for the sacraments seems to have been part of its legacy.
Another clear Protestant example of the reactionary effect is something I’ve been seeing pop up in multiple, independent places, namely the acceptance of Humanae Vitae and the rejection of birth control. This is much more a personal conviction and practice rather than formal teaching, but I’ve run into a number of Protestants who’ve adopted an anti-birth control stance. Similarly, head coverings are making a comeback in some precincts.
Lest I make it sound like this is merely something I see other people doing, I can say I observe it in my own life as well. I mentioned in Masc #27, for example, that my family abstains from meat on Friday. That’s a perfect example.
It’s no surprise to me that we see an increase in reactionary affect at a time when Christianity has transitioned from the “neutral world” to the “negative world” I wrote about in Masc #13. This has been a time when American Christians perceive themselves to be under threat in a different way than in the past.
The Limits of Reaction
Embracing reactionary symbols like these is a normal and for the most part fairly healthy thing to do. I’d go further and suggest that some of the underlying doctrines or practices called into question by these things do need to be questioned anew because previous generations many well have gotten them wrong. If Christianity wants to survive in a negative world future, it can’t just stake out positions in current debates. It also needs to go back and fix things that it got wrong. Birth control – rejected by all Protestant denominations until the 1930 Lambeth Conference – does need to be rethought. (Though let me quickly add I’m not convinced Humanae Vitae’s view is entirely right either).
I’m not saying I have the answers on all of these, but they need a fresh reconsideration.
However, problems arise when we try to take elements out of the past that are not mere symbols or simple practices like hijabs or Christian headcoverings but are instead structural elements highly integrated with the rest of society. When these elements are taken in a decontextualized form and dropped into todays’ society, they often don’t function at all or are even counterproductive.
The best example of this is the recent reactionary embrace of patriarchy by conservative Christians (mostly Evangelicals but also some others) who correctly sense that complementarianism is a failing project (see Masc #30).
The word “patriarchy” itself is useful as a Schelling Point. That is, it’s a great term that birds of a feather can use to find their tribe. But as an operational concept of how the home and society should function in the 21st century West, it’s deeply flawed.
Let’s be honest: the Bible as a whole is an obviously patriarchal book. And there are a number of verses whose plain meaning is that husbands should have the highest authority in the home and church. So it’s understandable why someone might alight on patriarchy as a substitute for the complementarianism.
But there’s a big problem: we don’t live in a patriarchy. The dictionary defines patriarchy as a “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line.” When Paul was writing letters like Ephesians, Rome very much was a patriarchy. The Roman paterfamilias had real, legal authority over his family, backed up by the power of the state. The societies of the Bible were patriarchies. Additionally, as I detailed in Masc #26, these societies were pre-industrial. The household was their fundamental economic and social unit and patriarchy was part of the way those pre-industrial systems functioned.
By contrast we live in a technological, post-industrial society that is legally and culturally egalitarian. It’s true that there are still some elements of what is often labeled patriarchy. For example, men do tend to occupy the highest and most prestigious positions in society such as President. But these things are constantly attacked by the most culturally prestigious institutions of society. And more importantly the legal system if anything is anti-patriarchal in that there are specific legal protections for women and some domains of the legal system, most famously family courts, are heavily biased in favor of women. As a friend of mine likes to say, husbands are fathers are essentially in “at-will” positions that the wife can terminate with or without cause at any time.
Believing in patriarchy today is kind of like believing in the divine right of kings. You may have noticed we don’t have a king. Telling a man he needs to act like a patriarch in our world is commanding him to do something that’s not legally or culturally possible to do except outside of vary narrow subcultures (most of which are not Christian). It’s a form of LARPing at best.
This is one reason why I reject terms like “servant lordship” or “servant rulership” that people sometimes throw out as alternatives to the dreaded “servant leadership.” The idea that the man is the lord or ruler of his home in contemporary Western society is ludicrous.
Obviously we have to obey God’s commands at all times. But it’s clear that the how of that is often shaped, and sometimes constrained, by circumstance. Paul was writing at a time when slavery was a major social institution and when many Christians were slaves. While it’s true that many Roman slaves had quite a bit of freedom, many others most certainly did not. Could Paul really have given instructions for marriage that didn’t take into account the reality that some Christians couldn’t even control themselves much less have authority over their families? How was a slave supposed to be a patriarch? In the Old Testament we also see that when the Jews were in their Babylonian captivity with the first temple destroyed they were physically unable to carry out the required sacrifices of the Levitical law, yet we don’t see this presented as rebellion against God.
I’m not suggesting we ignore the word of God. Rather, we need to think deeply about what it means to follow it in our current circumstances. Think about, for example, the current coronavirus outbreak. During past times of plague, especially in the Roman era, Christians refused to abandon or shun the sick and dying. Their willingness to provide care – even just giving food and water – saved huge numbers of lives. Many Christians themselves fell sick and died doing this. But today the church seems to have taken the opposite view, that it’s incumbent as a matter of Christian charity NOT to visit the sick and the dying, and for Christians to close their churches and stay at home to avoid inadvertently spreading disease. One reason this is possible is that unlike Rome, our world has a vast health infrastructure of well-trained professionals to care for the sick in a safe manner. I don’t know what the right answer for the church is right now when it comes to coronavirus, but I do know that mindlessly repeating the actions of the past, even truly heroic actions of the Roman plague eras, is not the right thing to do. We have to think about how we live out Christian duty of charity in today’s world.
The same is true for gender relations. One thing I actually like about the term “servant leadership” is the use of the word leadership, which is suggestive of the kinds of systems that exist in our society in which people must frequently use influence rather than formal authority to direct people. That’s the case even in corporations with actual lines of authority, and even truer in the home.
Today’s men need to understand intersexual dynamics, cultivate their own emotional intelligence, and understand the art of influence to succeed in marriage and fatherhood. Servant leadership fails not because of the name but because its substance is a largely false view of how these work (see Masc #17 attraction and Masc #23 hypergamy for examples).
It’s not enough to simply recognize the flaws in the contemporary gender theologies. We have to create an alternative that amounts to more than demanding men make bricks without straw. That applies not just practically but also theologically. As I wrote in Masc #30, “This [reactionary] group will struggle to create an intellectually coherent theology/vision that is viable in the today and tomorrow’s world. Unless they succeed in this undertaking, which would likely take some time to pull off that they may not have, these groups will wither.”
We Can Never Go Back
Another limitation of reactionary programs in general is that it’s not possible to roll back the clock. If your program involves going back to the way things were, other than in the most limited respects, it just not going to work.
David Brooks Atlantic cover story on why the nuclear family was a mistake generated tons of discussion. In it he wrote about “forged families,” or unrelated people who choose to enter into a family-like arrangement:
Tragedy and suffering have pushed people together in a way that goes deeper than just a convenient living arrangement. They become, as the anthropologists say, “fictive kin.” Over the past several decades, the decline of the nuclear family has created an epidemic of trauma—millions have been set adrift because what should have been the most loving and secure relationship in their life broke. Slowly, but with increasing frequency, these drifting individuals are coming together to create forged families. These forged families have a feeling of determined commitment. The members of your chosen family are the people who will show up for you no matter what. On Pinterest you can find placards to hang on the kitchen wall where forged families gather: “Family isn’t always blood. It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs; the ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile & who love you no matter what.”
I don’t think very many people really believe forged families are a substitute for the natural family. But guess what? With so many broken homes, out of wedlock births, and long term singles out there – millions “set adrift” as Brooks put it – forged families are going to have to be part of the solution for a significant number of people. This state of affairs is presently bringing pressure to bear on the church, which finds itself with an increasing number of long-term singles. Embracing post-familialism or trying to act as if the church can be a genuine substitute for the natural family are mistakes. Nevertheless, the circumstances that push churches in that direction are real, and represent a significant pastoral challenge.
We are not going to go back to the era of widespread, intact families as from the past. We can only go forward, which means dealing with the reality of what we have today.
It also means coming up with a new vision for a new, improved future we are working towards, not locating the “right” society at some point in our imagined past, whether that be the 1980s, the 1950s, the Victorian era, the Middle Ages, or whenever. I suspect that very few of us would actually choose to go live in a previous era if we could, especially if we experienced the reality of them first hand. Past days had their own huge problems, problems that were part of the reason they did not endure. Challenges arose which those legacy systems couldn’t resolve.
So while understanding historic commitments and symbols is important, I would argue that in order to thrive in the future, the church needs to replace a conservative or reactionary mindset with a forward looking or even revolutionary one. This would be a massive mindset shift for Christians, virtually all of whom are conservatives of one stripe or another – even the supposedly progressive one.
Tom Wolfe offered this astute insight in his essay “The Painted Word” on modern art. He wrote:
Meanwhile, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg made a grave tactical error. They simply denounced Pop Art. That was a gigantic blunder. Greenberg, above all, as the man who came up with the peerless Modern line, “All profoundly original art looks ugly at first,” should have realized that in an age of avant-gardism no critic can stop a new style by meeting it head-on. To be against what is new is not to be modern. Not to be modern is to write yourself out of the scene. Not to be in the scene is to be nowhere. No, in an age of avant-gardism the only possible strategy to counter a new style which you detest is to leapfrog it.
In a liberal or post-liberal culture such as ours, trying to go backwards is a failing move. Rather than reaction, think renaissance. Don’t try to put new wine in old wineskins. Create something new from the best of what is old and seek to leapfrog current structures with new ones that are both authentically Christian but also superior in terms of suitability to today and tomorrow’s world while realizing that these new structures themselves will continue to be flawed. As many of our current structures are quite dreadful, improving on them is a very realistic aspiration.
This, in turn, requires that we don’t just content ourselves with figuring out how to make the best of where we are (as in the forged families example), but also be willing to fundamentally seek to change society, or at a minimum the church, for the better in new ways suited to new times.
This is what people like David Brooks can’t do. Brooks sees clearly the toxic effects of modern society, yet he’s completely wedded to it. His program is essentially to ameliorate the worst of the negative outcomes our society produces without having to fundamentally change anything about it.
Brooks’s attitude is shared by nearly all conservative neo-Tocquevillian types (or the “front porch republic” crowd, as I some times call them because so many of them seem to be affiliated with FPR). I’ve yet to see one that does not treat any attempt to fundamentally change the status quo as utterly anathema. I highlighted the example of Patrick Deneen in Masc #32 but there are plenty of others. Whatever they may dislike about the current regime, it’s very clear that even the thought of something truly different is intolerable to them. (The exception is Catholic integralism, which I don’t think anyone takes seriously as a genuine political movement. And it’s interesting that big names in the integralist-leaning crowd like Adrian Vermeule and Sohrab Ahmari come from neocon backgrounds and do not appear to be part of neo-Tocquevillians circles like Front Porch Republic).
I spend a lot of time encouraging readers to think about how we live in the reality of the now. But I also want to change this place, or at least the Christian part of it. America’s family dynamics – declining family formation rates, 40% out of wedlock births, fertility rates below replacement and below desired fertility, and declining life expectancy – are not ones I have any interest in conserving. Nor am I content with mitigating some of their worst aspects. They represent a disaster for many millions of people, as people like Robert Putnam have documented. Unlike David Brooks, I’m willing to consider fundamental societal change to do it, even if it takes decades to make reality. We should all have a lot less freedom to make socially destructive choices, for example.
But I don’t want to try to go back to some imagined version of a previous era. We can have much better family dynamics – more marriages, more children, etc. – starting in the church, in a way that looks very different from the past and is appropriate to the 21st century. I don’t claim to have the complete right answer or how to get there right now, but the Masculinist is my piece of the puzzle that I’m working on.
I wrote a piece for the Institute for Family Studies with my own contribution to the debate over David Brooks’ nuclear family piece. I point out that focusing exclusively on family structure misses the bigger picture of changes in the function of the household.
And Plough magazine ran an adaptation of Masculinist #38.
I mentioned about a year ago that the infamous pickup artist Roosh Valizadeh had converted to Christianity. Well, earlier this year another “manosphere” personality, Victor Pride of the website Bold and Determined, also posted that he had converted to Christianity. It will be interesting to watch his future path.
Late last year a hedge fund issued a report in which they provided an analysis of the dating market. Most of the material in it is no surprise to readers of the Masculinist (see Masc #17, Masc #18, Masc #21, and Masc #23 ). In fact, they use some of the exact same charts I’ve featured. Not everything in this rock-solid in my view, but overall it’s accurate if depressing take.
Ask yourself this: do church leaders today talk or act like they understand this material?
Scientific American: Beautiful Minds – Taking Sex Differences in Personality Seriously
There now exists four large-scale studies that use this multivariate methodology (see here, here, here, and here). All four studies are conducted cross-culturally and report on an analysis of narrow personality traits (which, as you may recall, is where most of the action is when it comes to sex differences). Critically, all four studies converge on the same basic finding: when looking at the overall gestalt of human personality, there is a truly striking difference between the typical male and female personality profiles. Just how striking? Well, actually, really striking.
Rod Dreher: In Praise Of Tabloid Catholic Journalism – Dreher pushes back against George Weigel, who argues that Catholics should avoid dissident blogs and stick with established news sources. There’s been a similar push by big name Evangelicals, who are doing their best to try to discredit “discernment blogs” and the like. Undoubtedly these sites are quirky, but why is it that all too often they are the only places you can turn to for the truth? As Dreher so rightly puts it, “There are some truths that are so terrible that it takes people who are already relatively radicalized within a culture or institutions to see them.”
Commentary: A Bellow from France – Why don’t Americans ‘get’ Michel Houellebecq, the most important European novelist of the last quarter-century?
I could have suggested that she give up her studies and become a housewife, my wife in fact, and in retrospect, when I think about it (and I think about it almost all the time), I think she would have said yes – particularly after the industrial chicken-rearing facility. But I didn’t, and I probably couldn’t have done; I hadn’t been formatted for such a proposition, it wasn’t part of my software; I was a modern man, and for me, like for all of my contemporaries, a woman’s professional career was something that had to be respected above all else – it was the absolute criterion, it meant overtaking barbarism and leaving the Middle Ages. At the same time, I wasn’t entirely a modern man because I had, even just for a few seconds, been able to imagine the imperative of her leaving it; but once again I didn’t do anything, didn’t say anything, and let events run their course, while I essentially placed no trust in this return to Paris: like all cities, Paris was made to generate loneliness, and we hadn’t had enough time together, in that house, a man and a woman alone and facing one another; for a few months we had been the rest of each other’s world, but would we be able to sustain such a thing? I don’t know; I’m old now and can’t really remember, but I think I was already afraid, and I’d understood, even then, that society was a machine for destroying love.
– Michel Houellebecq, Serotonin