The concept of toxic masculinity permeates our Western society. Men are regularly depicted in movies, on social media, and in the political arena as evil, abusers, and oppressors—in short, the “problem.” Toxic masculinity, we are told, must be eliminated from our culture if justice and equity are to survive. How did we get to the place in which men are the source of virtually every wrong, i.e. toxic? Nancy Pearcey methodically traces the evolution of masculinity throughout history to answer this question and provide solutions. In the process, she shows the reader how the secular world has defined a “real” man (“tough, strong, never showing weakness, win at all costs, suck it up…be competitive”) (p. 19), in contrast to how God defines a “good” man. Pearcey’s stated goal is to detail how the church can “help make more authentic men? How can we encourage men in living out the ideal of the Good Man, while restricting the culturally driven script for the ‘Real’ Man?” (pp. 26-27)
The author notes how statistics are often manipulated to portray men as villains by lumping all men together. Media (and often Christian researchers) miss the fact that devoted Christian men live very differently from the stereotype. They have the lowest rate of domestic violence and divorce, are more loving to their wives, are more emotionally engaged with their children, spending more time with them, are less likely to cheat in their marriages, and are happier than any other demographic. Interestingly, nominal Christians are the worst in all these categories—even more so than secular men (pp. 15, 36-37, 41-45). Statistics alone demonstrate the life-changing power of the Christian life in forming good men as defined by Scripture. In addition, the happiest wives are religious conservatives (pp. 39-40). These facts should not be surprising when, historically, Christianity radically transformed marriage and family, not to mention men, in ancient times (pp. 52-55, 64). Everywhere the gospel of Christ has gone, men have been changed, women elevated, children loved, and cultures increasingly adoptive of biblical virtues. Good men “do not need to express themselves in dominance and control but are free to serve others” (p. 58). And while most conservative Christian men believe they are the head of their homes and wives are to submit, in practice this “marital chain of command” rarely comes into play (pp. 58-59). Rather, good men lead by example, serve others, and demonstrate love. Seldom do they need to “pull rank.”
According to Pearcey, it was the Industrial Revolution which changed the role of fathers in modern times (pp. 72-73, 87-88). Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most men lived, worked, played, etc., with their families every day on the farm and in small businesses. They were able to shape the lives of their children and set an example of manhood. But the Revolution took them out of the home and sent them away all day to work in factories. As a result, they began to lose influence within their own homes and morphed into spectators rather than active leaders. During the Colonial Age, the good man, under the influence of Puritanism, lived by virtues and sacrificed individual interest for the common good. Character counted more than achievement (pp. 77-85). But in the 19th century, the key word became “self” (p. 92). Virtues, rooted in Scripture, were replaced by values grounded in personal preferences, often divorced from reality (p. 95). The Colonial Age praised men for moral qualities; the 19th century praised personality traits (p. 101).
As the effects of the Industrial Revolution took hold, a change took place in the understanding of men and women. Women were regarded as morally superior and the guardians of all things good, while men were seen as morally degenerate and let off the hook for living respectfully (chapter six; pp. 105-109). By 1691, four women attended church for every man in America.
Chapter seven traces the rising influence of women in the 1800s and the historical roots of masculinity as toxic (p. 133), as alcohol consumption by men hit its peak in 1830 (p. 126). During this time frame, literature began depicting “real” boys and men as rebels—wild and rootless (pp. 140-148). Wilderness legends, cowboys, and Western fictions depicted men as noble savages, untamed, self-absorbed “real” men—all contrary to actual facts (pp. 140-152). The church became increasingly run by women. Church attendance during the Second Great Awakening was ninety-percent women (pp. 178, 316) who shaped Jesus and the Christian faith into more feminine characteristics (see p. 151). Many influences in modern times have reacted by perpetuating the “real man” myth. This is shown in the Iron John movement and by Christian authors such as John Eldredge and his Wild at Heart books (pp. 154-156, 311).
Today, forty percent of children live apart from their natural fathers (p. 200), and this is the first generation raised by women (p. 139). The playboy philosophy—an all-out rebellion against marital duty—is alive and well (p. 201).
Throughout the book, Pearcey points to Jesus as our example and Scripture as our base. A “Real Man obeys God and grows up” (p. 175). sixty-eight percent of the time children who have close relationships with their fathers carry out their fathers’ level of religious participation (p. 208). However, some of her solutions are questionable. First, she does not distinguish the effects of the church from what is taking place in society. Having already demonstrated the transformative power of the gospel and following biblical teachings, she abandons that approach and turns instead to psychology. Using the same kinds of bad statistics that she earlier decries, she quotes Rachael Denhollander who claims that about a third of women in the church have experienced domestic and/or sexual abuse in the home. In this approach, she makes no distinction between nominal Christians and serious disciples of Christ. She calls on wives to practice tough love and distill consequences on their husbands to get them back in line (pp. 258-260). She dismisses 1 Peter 3:1-2 as cultural and ignorable in modern times (pp. 261, 326). While we agree that domestic abuse should not be tolerated, her solutions rest in psychological methods, and little in the way of helpful direction is given. She also does not seem to understand that secular society is not looking to the church to define manhood or develop “good” men. Instead media insist on twisting the evidence to try to prove that Christianity is part of the toxic masculinity problem. Our call biblically is to help Christian men be true, biblical, good men despite what culture says or does. In light of truth, we must return to the all-sufficient teachings of Scripture. I think Pearcey falls short in this regard.
But ending this review on a high note, I appreciate her comment that “no matter how badly our earthly fathers missed the mark, we are not forever handicapped by that history” (p. 265). Our ultimate identity is derived not from our biological fathers but from our spiritual Father. This is good news indeed.The Toxic War on Masculinity is an excellent evaluation of the history of developing concepts of manhood in the Western world and is valuable in understanding why and how men are viewed as toxic today. But, while not ignoring the input of Scripture, she focuses far too much on psychology and psychological solutions. Good men, as Pearcey acknowledges, are formed by obedience to Scripture, not the demands of their wives or therapeutic methods. Had she focused attention more on Scripture and practical means of obedience, the book would be more useful.
by Nancy R. Pearcey (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2023), 344 pp., hard $21.86
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel