Why was Nancy Pearcy inclined to write a book about masculinity? For Pearcey, the reason is quite personal. She shares about her publicly-pious, privately-abusive father who warped her view of masculinity. “As a little girl I wondered how a man can sometimes be so wonderful and at other times so cruel. As an adult, I have had to spend literally decades thinking through how to define a healthy, biblical concept of masculinity. What is the God-given pattern for manhood?” Pearcy posits that the true, biblical version of manhood, the “Good Man,” characterized by “honor, courage, fidelity, and self-control,” has been obfuscated by a secularized version, the “Real” man script, which glorifies selfish ambition, womanizing, and domination.
Pearcy’s aim for Toxic War is to dispel the false assumptions about the misogyny and oppression committed by Evangelical Christian men. She argues that surprising findings from respected social scientists, historians, and theologians show a different picture when it comes to authentically committed Christian men. Pearcey acknowledges that even though the secular script for masculinity in the United States did indeed turn toxic, Christianity alone offers a superior model for healthy masculinity.
Pearcy organizes her treatise in three sections: In Part One, titled “The Good News about Christian Men,” she heavily relies on the empirical studies of Catholic sociologist, Brad Wilcox, to offer encouragement to her Christian audience. Among the findings is that committed American Evangelical men are least likely to abuse women, have the happiest marriages, and are the most involved fathers. Christians may be shocked to hear this, but, as Pearcy asserts, this is because previously reported data to the contrary included nominal men, those who profess Christ in name but lack authentic faith. Thus, Christian men who follow biblical precepts for masculinity have the support of the social sciences to share the winning strategy for a successful marriage and family the world desperately needs.
In Part Two, “How the Secular Script Turned Toxic,” Pearcy takes the reader on a trek through American history to elucidate in sharp detail the downgrade of true masculinity. Beginning with the Colonial era, she documents how the agrarian family unit resembled a microcosm of the Edenic ideal, where fathers lovingly rule the home while working the family trade alongside their equally competent spouse to live out God’s original mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Alas, paradise was soon lost with the rise of industrialization, which relegated faith to the private sphere. Once men were thrown into the dog-eat-dog secular world, either by necessity or choice, any vestige of biblical fidelity was scrutinized under the disapproving glare of secular humanism, causing many men to compartmentalize or completely abandon their biblical beliefs.
In Pearcey’s estimation, this retreat from biblical manhood opened a Pandora’s box of familial disorder and subsequent cultural chaos we see today. With religious convictions confined to the private realm, men lacked moral restraints to live out their God-given leadership role, privately and publicly. This led to women taking up the mantle of moral leadership, spearheading the temperance and abolition movements. A greater divide between the sexes unfolded as men embraced an individualistic mindset that freed them from feminized cultural mores and allowed them to discover their inner savage, as popularized by Rousseau and supported by Darwin’s evolutionary theory. As men chased personal fulfillment, children were left without a male presence in the home as the divorce rate soared.
The third and concluding section, “When Christian Men Absorb the Secular Script” tackles the difficult topic of domestic abuse in the church. According to Pearcey, it’s a lack of emotional development that causes many well-meaning husbands to overly exert their power over their wives. Many abusive men have a “father wound” which manifests in an inability to cultivate emotional intimacy with their spouse. Churches can mediate these issues by offering men relational education and encouraging women in abusive relationships to establish clear boundaries. Pearcy closes with a redemptive ending to her personal story and an exhortation for those in difficult relationships.
Pearcy has stated that Toxic War has been her most controversial book to date. It should come as no surprise since our current society no longer holds a deferential attitude towards conservative Christian beliefs; instead, as Aaron Renn postulates, it views orthodox Christian morality as oppressive and downright hateful. We have also entered a new era of apostasy neatly labeled “Christian deconstruction.” A faith “once for all time handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3) has now become “messy.” For those who have imbibed the progressive orthodoxy of our day, the problem is not with masculinity – it’s with authority.
The term masculinity in today’s postmodern culture has become synonymous with abuse of power. Pearcy rightly debunks the Left’s machismo depiction of biblical masculinity by using the God-fearing men of the Colonial and Puritan eras as examples. These were time periods in our nation’s early founding when Christian men have been stereotyped as domineering, but literature from that era depicts them as co-laborers of the home, spiritual leaders to their wives and children, and loving fathers. When Pearcy goes to the historical records, her work really shines.
It is when the topic of male headship and authority in marriage come into play that Pearcy tries to straddle the fence. Here she relies on the social sciences and egalitarian perspectives to support a mutuality (egalitarian) view. One of the key findings in Wilcox’s study is, “In practice, there seems to be little difference [in terms of happiness] whether a marriage is complementarian or egalitarian.”To Pearcy, this is confirmation that conservative Christian marriages are not inherently abusive. Though broadly speaking, this does destigmatize Christian men from that label, it does not address the ongoing debate within the Conservative Church concerning gender roles and male headship, at home and in the church. In fact, it only serves to further promote an egalitarian view.
Pearcy has tried to remain above the fray when it comes to the culture wars. In her introduction she states that her goal is to “take a ‘just the facts’ approach, blending historical and sociological facts with personal stories and anecdotes.” Facts, however, can be presented to affirm a particular viewpoint. Though she successfully blends her own conservative Christian convictions with historical data to defend complementarian men, she mostly skews to the egalitarian perspective when defining male headship. By doing so, she affirms a view that promotes the usurping of biblical male headship, or legitimate patriarchy: the same type of patriarchy she took pains to validate.
One example is how she describes the curse placed upon Adam and Eve in the Genesis account. In reference to Genesis 3:16, she uses psychologist John Gottman’s finding that women seek marital guidance more often than men to confirm the interpretation that “desire” translates to emotional longing. “Modern psychological research seems to be confirming Genesis 3:16.” While it is true that women have a stronger desire for emotional connection, the historical interpretation seems to be that it was because of Eve’s defiance of God’s authority (and Adam’s dereliction of his leadership role) she would have a resistance to her subordinate (in function, not worth) role to Adam.
Because of Eve’s insubordination to God’s authority, the wife’s tendency is now to challenge the husband’s role in the marital hierarchy, now seen as oppressive. Of course men can abuse their leadership role, but to claim that women do not have a propensity to rebel against God’s created order for marriage is to ignore all the damage feminism has wrought on the church. Yet Pearcy frequently quotes egalitarians associated with Christians for Biblical Equality, which affirms:
“In the church, spiritual gifts of women and men are to be recognized, developed and used in serving and teaching ministries at all levels of involvement: as small group leaders, counselors, facilitators, administrators, ushers, communion servers, and board members, and in pastoral care, teaching, preaching, and worship.” (emphasis mine)
Although Pearcey’s goal was to remain neutral on the topic of male and female roles in marriage, she has found herself in no man’s land when it comes to defending the biblical view of manhood, since the primary way men learn about masculinity is through the marital dynamics in the nuclear family. She cites research and anecdotal evidence that supports male headship in a loving and respectful Christian marriage, yet doesn’t pull the trigger when it comes time to choose a side to defend. And the toxic war against biblical masculinity wages on.
On the surface, Pearcey’s Toxic War will provide Christians with a wealth of history and research to help bolster their confidence when defending God’s design for masculinity. Pearcy’s thorough academic research and analytical mind is a blessing to the church. Upon deeper inspection, it lacks the ammunition of a solid historical theology of biblical manhood and male headship to equip conservative believers to take a stand for true masculinity on the authority of God’s word rather than the authority of academia.