Mark Coppenger On Manliness

Mark Coppenger

Twice I was slotted to offer a prayer for seminary graduates, and each time I asked God’s blessing “that the men gathered here today would be manly, and the women womanly.” I think it struck a fair number of attendees as odd if not inappropriate. What sort of stereotypes was I pushing?

Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield met with the same sort of puzzlement when he used this language without irony. In this connection, he recounts an exchange in Manliness, published surprisingly by Yale University Press:

“Recently I had a call from the alumni magazine at the university where I work, asking me to comment on a former professor of mine now being honored. Responding too quickly, I said: ‘What impressed all of us about him was his manliness.’ There was a silence at the other end of the line, and finally the female voice said: ‘Could you think of another word?'”

Cat Petting, Lumbersexuality, and Henhouse Ways

To help get a fix on this radioactive word, let’s turn to the Babylon Bee for the “Top 10 Male Bonding Activities”, (such as “staring at a fire without speaking”) and the cautionary notes under “10 Signs You May Be a Pathetic Beta Male” (such as “You once thought about petting a cat”). But C. S. Lewis, a manifestly manly man, was not so keen when he wrote to one Sister Penelope in October of 1954, “There ought spiritually to be a man in every woman and a woman in every man . . . I can’t bear a ‘man’s man’ and a ‘woman’s woman.” Earlier that year, in a letter to Mary Willis Shelburne (one citing the tears of “Aeneas and Hector and Beowulf, Roland and Lancelot”), Lewis (of British “stiff upper lip” stock) wrote, “I suspect we—and especially my sex—don’t cry enough nowadays.” Fair enough. Indeed, in Acts 20:19 and Philippians 3:18, we see the manly Apostle Paul as one who weeps; and, as for a touch of manliness in women, we find both the Proverbs 31 woman and Lydia of Thyatira to be entrepreneurial adepts. Still, in all, Lewis’s observations rest upon a genuine male-female distinction, whereby we must “Mind the Gap.” Otherwise, we guys could be vulnerable to the appropriately-embarrassing judgment, “He may not be a chicken, but he has his henhouse ways.”

The best I can tell, Lewis was addressing affectations—strained or theatrical attempts at branding, rather than natural, stewardly, vocational out-workings of one’s biologically-based, gendered essence. I think of the “lumbersexuality” phenomenon, born of “a crisis in urban masculinity”–giving us the aesthetic of “buffalo plaid flannel . . . paired with a watch cap, work boots, suspenders, a scruffy beard and “ironic” vintage eyeglass frames,” sported by a man “whose idea of physical labor is hailing a cab to the office and perhaps picking up a latte-to-go.” Thank God for flannel and boots, but not so much when they’re deployed as mere costumes.

Contemptuous Feminist Narratives

Of course, the cultural headwinds have denigrated manhood. Our public libraries and school curricula are well stocked with feminist onslaughts thanks to the likes (and acolytes) of Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Margaret Atwood, Peggy Orenstein, and Clementine Ford, who issues “a call-to-arms for women to rediscover the fury that has been suppressed by a society that, despite best efforts, still considers feminism to be a threat.”

Certainly, there are thuggish men enough to give feminism a push. As a Welsh “Suffragette Wife” put it in her 1918 flyer advising young women on marriage, “Don’t except [sic] too much, most men are lazy, selfish, thoughtless, lying, drunken, clumsy, heavy-footed, rough, unmanly brutes, and need taming.” (Note, though, that she pays tribute to manliness.)

Biblicist Pushback

The Bible does too. Witness King David’s parting words to his son Solomon: “ . . . be thou strong . . . and shew thyself a man” (1 Kings 2:2) and Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians: “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong” (1 Cor 16:13). Providentially, a variety of Christian writers is reclaiming masculinity from the valley of disrepute. In the nineteenth century, British minister John Benjamin Figgis delivered a sermon on manliness, prescribing “bravery, honesty, activity, and piety.” In that same era, J. C. Ryle took the via negativa, warning young men in particular of the special dangers of pride, love of pleasure, thoughtlessness and inconsideration, contempt of religion, and fear of man’s opinion.

Tracking on up through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Brett and Kate McKay prescribe eleven characteristics in The Art of Manliness, to include “works hard and seldom complains”; Stephen Mansfield offers seventeen illustrated desiderata, e.g. “wildness” (Teddy Roosevelt) and “humility” (Booker T. Washington); Ryan Michler name three archetypal duties of manliness, “Protect, Provide, Preside”; the SBTS publication, A Guide to Biblical Manhood, includes “a willingness to sacrifice and lead for the greater good” and the ability to “skin an animal” and “handle loss” in sports; drawing on biblical examples Senator Josh Hawley homes in on men’s roles as husband, father, warrior, builder, priest, and king; similarly, Doug Wilson outlines their roles as lords, husbandmen, saviors, sages, and glory-bearers; John Eldridge invites women to discover the secret of a man’s soul and to delight in the strength and wildness men were created to offer”; and Doug Bond contrasts “The Force of Good Manners” with “The Farce of Cool.” (In this, they’ve been cheered on by such women as Marabel Morgan and Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth.)

Co-Belligerents from the Secular World

These are Christian writers, but I’ve also been struck by the work of non-believers who’ve insisted on differentiation in gender nature and roles. In Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, John Gray observes, “Not only do men and women communicate differently but they think, feel, perceive, react, respond, love, need, and appreciate differently.” And then there’s the aforementioned political philosopher Harvey Mansfield, who calls himself “just only officially” a Christian—“I respect them” but “in practice I don’t believe.” He notes that on 9/11, “The heroes of that day were (apparently) exclusively male—as were the villains,” and “Women were reminded that men can come in handy.” A few pages on, he says that a gentleman “opens doors for women when nothing is at stake, but when a crisis comes, his very utility commands women to ‘get out of my way!’” And his confidence to step forward is not necessarily based on a calculation that he’ll prevail: “Manliness is knowing how to be confident in situations where sufficient knowledge is not available.” On this model, Barney Fife will step in to defend Thelma Lou against the unwanted advances of a Bluto character even when the math suggests he’ll be smashed.

This is entirely congruent with the biblical counsel to husbands in 1 Peter 3:7, that they should understand their wives “weaker vessels.” It’s the conviction of those opposed to drafting women (deficient in lethality and survivability) for combat service, the sentiment that drives the chivalrous cry, “Women and children first into the lifeboats,” when the Titanic is sinking.

Damsels in Distress: The Bride of Christ and Lady Wisdom

In closing let me venture to suggest two special women whom men have been called to protect, nurture, and honor—the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:32) and Lady Wisdom (Proverbs 1:20-33). Through Old Testament language (“Listen my son”) and the New Testament’s gender stipulations for pastors, men have been charged with securing and elevating the godly status of both the church and reasonableness. On this model, a man could present himself as a champion of women while, at the same time, undermining the welfare of “bridal” congregations through “unwise” arguments, thus harming two dear, biblical ladies.

Alas, the estimable, megachurch pastor, Rick Warren, has fallen into that self-confounding trap. He’s posted five points he thinks are compelling in support of women pastors, claiming that the church (of Southern Baptist persuasion in particular) has scandalized itself by ensuring that “God given spiritual gifts and leadership skills are being wasted instead of empowered for the Great Commission,” the result being that “We cannot finish the task Jesus gave us with 50% of the church forced to sit on the bench.”

I don’t know much about what’s going on at Saddleback, but every Southern Baptist church I’ve belonged to is blessed by women working mightily and effectually in countless ways, not at all sitting on the bench, and well positioned to strengthen our ability to finish the task Jesus gave us. The Bible gives us the blueprint for ordering our congregational lives and the assurance that so ordered, the work the Lord has for us will get done just fine, thank you. That’s the manly perspective.

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