On Thinking Small and Changing the World

Pawn on chessboard

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

The world is not what it should be. In just the past few days, we have been inundated with news about jihadist murder in France, racial tensions in America, an attempted coup in Turkey, and starving millions in Venezuela. I think we would all agree that Someone Should Do Something About That, and we probably feel guilty that we aren’t stepping up to be the Someone who does the Something.

But perhaps we are not quite on the mark about the Something we ought to be doing. Several unrelated social trends have worked together to give our era an unbalanced and counterproductive understanding of how renewal comes and what it takes to make the world a better place.

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Chariots, horses, and living Christianly in post-Christian America

So, we can all agree that modern-day America is not a Christian nation, right? For many believers, it seems the now-inevitable nomination of Donald Trump by nominally conservative voters has put an exclamation point on a demoralizing story of pushback and defeat in the “culture war.” Losing battles is hard, but losing allies is sometimes harder. Being a Christian in the public square suddenly feels a lot lonelier, which may be why we are hearing increasing calls to abandon it altogether. Stop pretending America is a Christian nation; stop trying to engage, let alone restore, the culture.

In some ways, this growing disenchantment with the political process is a good thing. Democracy and the political process have always offered a tempting shortcut past the Great Commission. Winning elections is more exciting than winning souls and offers more immediate and dramatic results, with a good deal less dying to self required in the process. Worse, as long as Christian causes were political winners, our cultural strength masked deeper problems, as the lazy conviction that America was Christian helped hide the degree to which the American church was not.

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Manliness, initiation, and Twisted Sister

Apologies in advance for what is likely to be a somewhat rambling post. I came across this music video for Twisted Sister’s 1984 hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It” somewhat randomly on a political blog and watched the first bit out of curiosity, then found myself engrossed and rewatching the whole five minute video. The imagery has stuck with me for the last couple days, tying in with a lot of the themes of maleness that I’ve been thinking about recently.

To start off, watch the video. (The whole thing. Seriously.)

What is so striking about this video is the way it echoes, in a dim and rather unwell way, the model of a male initiation. All the requisite players are there: father and family, son, and initiators in the form of the band; but it’s all off somehow, like a portrait done in Silly Putty and mashed almost past recognition.

The portrayal of the father immediately sets things off on a wrong note. He rants and spews incoherent spittle and disdain, but there’s no hint of real strength as he’s harried through his house and repeatedly defenestrated by the menacing band members. Bullying and loud, yet ultimately impotent, he exemplifies our cultural perception of unreconstructed maleness. As such, he is interesting, but the main question at the moment is how this father will affect his son’s initiation into manhood.

A common theme of male initiation is violence on the part of the initiators. They kidnap the boy, take him to a strange place, wound him. The initiation is a thing to be desired, yet feared; entering the fellowship of men is a dangerous thing because a man is a dangerous thing.

Consciously or not, in the video Twisted Sister clearly echoes the image of male initiators. They appear at a critical juncture to pull the boy from his home and family and offer him a new life, represented by the later shot of him at a Twisted Sister concert as they roar, “We’re not gonna take it, no we ain’t gonna take it, we’re not gonna take it anymore.” The band’s stylized, disguised appearance and menacing behavior complete the picture of a band of initiators. Yet the initiators in this story do not kidnap the boy – they rescue him.

As the boy faces his threatening, angry father, the band rushes in to confront the man. Their challenge is for the father, and he becomes an object of mockery as they reveal his true weakness. Rather than a danger, these initiators represent safety and excitement, away from the unpleasantness of dealing with challenging maleness. Saved, the boy joins the ranks of their headbanging fans, cheering enthusiastically while the band cries, “Oh you’re so condescending / your gall is never ending / we don’t want nothin’, not a thing from you / your life is trite and jaded / boring and confiscated / if that’s your best, your best won’t do.”

While it’s certainly possible to read too much into an 80’s glam rock production, I would argue that the video offers a vivid picture of the state of male initiation in America. Today, the cultural energy that might go toward ushering boys into manhood is instead directed at rescuing those boys from a manliness that is seen as brutal and loutish, or at best merely outdated and unnecessary.

In a culture where child custody cases end with sole custody for the mother 70-80 percent of the time, manliness is not seen as beneficial, but as an inconvenient or offensive obstacle to teaching a boy to be gracious, orderly, studious, sensitive, open, patient, and civilized. Because of this, boys must be saved from masculine tendencies and influences by schools, family, and media. As Harvey Mansfield writes in Manliness, “Even when ‘man’ means only male, ‘manly’ still seems pretentious in our new society, and threatening to it as well. The manly man is making a point of the bad attitude he ought to be playing down.” Like the band in the video, these would-be saviors rush in to separate the boy from masculinity and set out to shape him according to their ideal in a sort of soft, amoeba-like initiation.

Such pressure creates several different types of young men. Some simply absorb the message, give up, and cease to be manly in any meaningful sense. Fight Club and Wanted are anthems to the awakening and late initiation of such men. They are usually very nice and very civilized; women often like them because women tend to be fond of children. Though these men sometimes become more manly as they age, even then there is always a hint about them of someone who is trying to remember where he left something important.

Other men absorb the message but do not quite cease to be manly, so they respond as a man does when confronted with badness: they fight. Of course, the badness they confront and fight is maleness itself. They become Twisted Sister: “This is our life, this is our song / we’ll fight the powers that be, just / don’t pick our destiny ’cause / you don’t know us, you don’t belong.” They stand up in manly disdain to disdain manliness. Much of the American intelligentsia – among them, perhaps, President Barrack Obama – falls into this category.

And finally, some men reject the devaluation of manliness and, in the absence of mentors, initiators, or instruction, try to make themselves manly. Sadly, they usually become some variation of the father in the video, desperately aping the most obvious characteristics of masculinity without the solid inner core that only comes by absorption through long contact with true manliness, and without which the superficial attributes of manliness easily cave into wrongness. The hip-hop culture, with its loud rebellion, glorification of meaningless violence, and hypersexualization of women, is the result of boys trying to create their own masculinity. Less dramatically, our society is full of fathers who respond with everything from withdrawal to violence as they come to the choking realization that they have no idea, on a level deeper than mere intellect, of how to actually be the man their wife and children need.

“If that’s your best, your best won’t do,” declares the song, and it’s hard to disagree. Yet, as the father asks, “What kind of a man are you?” “What do you want to do with your life?” there’s a thinness to his son’s defiant response, “I wanna rock.” He is looking for identity and meaning, but there is no one to guide him; only well-meaning rescuers who pluck him away from the danger, challenge, and responsibility of becoming a man.

Men unmanned

A depressing story from the UK.

A judge has hailed the heroism of an 83-year-old war veteran who tackled a gunman during a robbery at a bookmakers while nine other men stood by.

Sidney Bannister, who served with the Royal Artillery Corps during World War II, put 30-year-old robber Henry Rockson in a headlock.

But the pensioner’s calls for assistance met a wall of silence and up to nine other men in the shop – most far younger than Mr Bannister – stood by as Rockson smashed him twice in the head with the butt of the gun. […]

[T]he widower, of Lees near Oldham, Greater Manchester, said: ‘There were nine other blokes in the shop and most of them were either half my age or younger. I just wish one of them had shown some gumption. […]

After the court case, Mr Bannister expressed his gratitude for the judge’s comments but added: ‘I wasn’t being brave that day – I just acted on human instinct which I would have hoped most men have.

‘I had seen this man raise a gun at a woman and grab some money … and when he started to make a run for it I just thought, “Why should he be allowed to get away with it?”

‘People don’t want to get involved these days. In my day we were brought up to have a go and not be a shrinking violet when we saw something happening that was very wrong.’

After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, Mark Steyn remembered Canada’s most famous mass-murder.

Yet the defining image of contemporary Canadian maleness is not M Lepine/Gharbi but the professors and the men in that classroom, who, ordered to leave by the lone gunman, meekly did so, and abandoned their female classmates to their fate — an act of abdication that would have been unthinkable in almost any other culture throughout human history. The “men” stood outside in the corridor and, even as they heard the first shots, they did nothing. And, when it was over and Gharbi walked out of the room and past them, they still did nothing. Whatever its other defects, Canadian manhood does not suffer from an excess of testosterone.

One more: the story of a young Chinese woman, decapitated last week in a Virginia Tech cafe while half-a-dozen people watched.

Authorities gave this account: Virginia Tech police, responding to two frantic 911 calls about 7 p.m. Wednesday, found Zhu standing in the Au Bon Pain cafe on campus, with Yang’s severed head in his hands, according to an affidavit. A large, bloody kitchen knife lay nearby, and Zhu’s backpack, on the floor, was filled with other sharp weapons. Seven people witnessed the attack, which came without as much as a raised voice as the two drank coffee.

Decapitation is a bit more involved than simply stabbing someone. Did it not occur to any of those seven people that perhaps they could do something?

Perhaps not. In times of stress, higher cognitive functioning falls by the wayside while instincts and emotion take over. We can take it as a given that the instinct for self-preservation is going to be clamoring for attention, but, for men throughout history, another instinct would chime in: Protect the weak. Better death than dishonor. Note Sidney Bannister’s explanation of his actions: “I wasn’t being brave that day – I just acted on human instinct which I would have hoped most men have.” He doesn’t understand that the other nine men in that store also acted on instinct. They just had different instincts. In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales writes,

Stress releases cortisol into the blood. It invades the hippocampus and interferes with its work. (Long-term stress can kill hippocampal cells.) The amygdala has powerful connections to the sensory cortices, the rhinal cortex, the anterior cingulate, and the ventral prefrontal cortext, which means that the entire memory system, both input and output, are affected. As a result, most people are incapable of performing any but the simplest tasks under stress. They can’t remember the most basic things. […] Although strong emotion can interfere with the ability to reason, emotion is also necessary for both reasoning and learning. Emotion is the source of both success and failure at selecting correct action at the crucial moment.

Instinct – what Gonzales calls emotion – comes through practice. In a society where courtesy to women is an insult, where a disproportionate fear of pedophilia discourages male interaction with children, how exactly do we expect men to develop the instinct to protect those weaker than themselves? Describing the Lepine massacre mentioned above, Crime Library says, “They wondered whether they should try to overpower the gunman, protect the women, or leave. The choice as to what was best was unclear. But after a few moments, the male students and teachers walked outside. In weeks to come, many of them would have nightmares about this moment, reliving it over and over, wishing they had acted differently.”

At the crucial moment, stress forced these men to operate instinctively. Their most basic selves stood bare in the face of danger. And stood. And blinked impotently. And quietly walked away, because at a fundamental, instinctual level, they had nothing to tell them what to do. They were not all cowards. Most likely, if they had had time for reflection, time to reason through what was happening and decide what they ought to do, at least some of them would have reacted differently. But they didn’t have that time, so they needed instincts that our culture gave them no chance to develop.

The Bible is not the Kama Sutra

In the course of appeals to men to avoid promiscuity, remain faithful to their spouse, or otherwise seek sexual purity, many Christians rely primarily on a popular argument: Explain cheerfully that the moral way actually, really and truly, based on scientific studies, will lead to better sex. Few seem to find this at all odd; a fact which strikes me as, itself, rather odd.

Yes, sex will always be a significant motivator for men. Yes, since God invented it, one can assume that following his guidelines is as wise a course to full enjoyment of this gift as of any other. However, might there be more productive and less condescending ways to urge male sexual purity than to enthusiastically declare that Our Sex Is Better Than Your Sex? If the church was battling an epidemic of gluttony, would we be writing books explaining that moderation actually offers more pleasure for the discerning hedonist?

Rather than debating the sensual merits of monogamy versus promiscuity, abstinence versus premarital sex, perhaps the church would be better served to issue a stirring cry to honor, a reminder of duty to God and women. The man who believes abstinence will pay dividends of better sex in the future may be no less likely to remain pure than the man who believes premarital sex will defile and dishonor the woman he loves, but which motivation produces the better man?

In C.S. Lewis’ Out Of The Silent Planet, the ruler of the planet Malacandra says to Weston, who is willing to massacre other civilizations in his quest to spread mankind throughout the universe, “I see now how the lord of the silent planet has bent you. There are laws that all hnau know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little, blind Oyarsa in your brain. And now you can do nothing but obey it, though if we ask you why it is a law you give no other reason for it than for all the other and greater laws which it drives you to disobey. Do you know why he has done this? […] He has left you this one because a bent hnau can do much more evil than a broken one.”

Our culture has similarly inflated a good and natural desire, setting it up as a little, blind god in the minds of men. Collaborating with the bent god, hoping we can persuade him to act as we would prefer, is to accept defeat before the battle has been joined.

Who needs buttercups or bishops when you have broadband?

The Telegraph reports on the latest update to Oxford University Press’ children’s dictionary:

Oxford University Press has removed words like “aisle”, “bishop”, “chapel”, “empire” and “monarch” from its Junior Dictionary and replaced them with words like “blog”, “broadband” and “celebrity”. Dozens of words related to the countryside have also been culled.

The publisher claims the changes have been made to reflect the fact that Britain is a modern, multicultural, multifaith society. […]

“We have a certain Christian narrative which has given meaning to us over the last 2,000 years. To say it is all relative and replaceable is questionable,” said Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment at Buckingham University. “The word selections are a very interesting reflection of the way childhood is going, moving away from our spiritual background and the natural world and towards the world that information technology creates for us.”

An analysis of the word choices made by the dictionary lexicographers has revealed that entries from “abbey” to “willow” have been axed. Instead, words such as “MP3 player”, “voicemail” and “attachment” have taken their place. […]

Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, a leading private school in Berkshire, said: “I am stunned that words like “saint”, “buttercup”, “heather” and “sycamore” have all gone and I grieve it.”