Work Will Trump Family Time (Unless We Fight It)

Man with phone at work

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talking ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say, I’m gonna be like you, dad
You know I’m gonna be like you

I first heard Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle” when I was a young boy, and even then I felt the poignancy of the lyrics, with the understated sadness of the closing verse as the now-grandfather is brushed off by his grown son. “And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me / He’d grown up just like me / My boy was just like me.” As I’ve become a man, then a husband, and now a father, the song has stuck with me as a reminder of the terrible danger of prioritizing success in every area of life except the one which is especially my own to steward, to cultivate, and to love: my family.

I still vividly remember having lunch with a prominent figure in Christian publishing and asking him for any insights into how to care for one’s family while working in a ministry field where there is always one more good thing to be done before you wrap up for the night. This elderly, godly man replied, with tears in his eyes, “Don’t be like me.” He had learned his lesson the hard way, amid the ruins of his first marriage.

Read moreWork Will Trump Family Time (Unless We Fight It)

Men, Church, and ‘Laboring Alongside’

Men working

I have a challenge for men out there: Spend a couple hours working with another guy on some project at which you’re both pretty competent. It doesn’t matter what it is. While you’re working you are not allowed to talk about yourselves or about anything other than the project itself. Just pound in the nails or debug the code or do whatever it is you’re doing. Then, when you’re done, try not to feel a sense of respect and comradery with your work-buddy.

I doubt you’ll be able to prevent it.

It has become almost a cliché to point out that men naturally relate to one another side by side, while women relate face to face. Generally speaking, men bond though shared effort. Women bond through shared emotion. It’s not an absolute distinction, of course, but it’s a strong tendency. It’s just how we’re built.

It’s worth thinking about how this affects our faith and our churches. When you think of church, what comes to mind? A loving, welcoming, friendly place? What about when you think of God? A loving heavenly Father who welcomes our worship and listens when we talk to him? American Christianity has a lot of face to face, but not much side by side.

Read moreMen, Church, and ‘Laboring Alongside’

Making Men

Father and son

The article is called “The Fear of Having a Son” and it is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. Andrew Reiner, an English professor, begins by describing his response five years ago when a student asked him how he felt about having a son: “‘Terrifying,’ I blurted. ‘All I can think about is bullying.'”

He feared his son would be bullied, he explains, because “this boy’s going to be raised to feel and express his vulnerability. That’s a curse in this culture.” But in addition to fearing how his son would be received by a hostile culture, he also dreaded the appeal of that culture, worrying that his son would be drawn into the “alpha domination” and “tight-lipped John Wayne ethos” that form “the limiting script of traditional masculine norms.” Small wonder that raising a son felt like a terrifying journey.

Read moreMaking Men

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.

Hidden fathers and the need for competent maleness

Throughout the ancient hunter societies… and throughout the hunter-gatherer societies that followed them, and the subsequent agricultural and craft societies, fathers and sons worked and lived together. As late as 1900 in the United States about ninety percent of fathers were engaged in agriculture. In all these societies the son characteristically saw his father working at all times of the day and all seasons of the year.

When the son no longer sees that, what happens? After thirty years of working with young German men, as fatherless in their industrial society as young American men today, Alexander Mitscherlich… developed a metaphor: a hole appears in the son’s psyche…

We know of rare cases in which the father takes sons or daughters into his factory, judge’s chambers, used-car lot, or insurance building, and those efforts at teaching do reap some of the rewards of teaching in craft cultures. But in most families today, the sons and daughters receive, when the father returns home at six, only his disposition, or his temperament, which is usually irritable and remote… Fathers in earlier times could often break through their own humanly inadequate temperaments by teaching rope-making, fishing, posthole digging, grain cutting, drumming, harness making, animal care, even singing and storytelling. That teaching sweetened the effect of the temperament…

[T]he father as a living force in the home disappeared when those forces demanding industry sent him on various railroads out of his various villages… When a father now sits down at the table, he seems weak and insignificant and we all sense that fathers no longer fill as large a space in the room as nineteenth-century fathers did.

Robert Bly argues in Iron John that the diminishment of the father’s role in family life is destructive to both daughters and sons, but particularly to the son. With his principal image of manliness reduced to a half-stranger whose regular appearances every evening do little to impact the real life of the family, the son is left with terrible deficiency: “How does he imagine his own life as a man?”

Bly suggests this absence leads to two different types of men. The first “fall into a fearful hopelessness, having fully accepted the generic, diminished idea of father. ‘I am the son of defective male material, and I’ll probably be the same as he is.'” The second type become what Bly calls “ascenders,” striving with a hint of mania to redeem a maleness they do not really know. “The ascensionist son is flying away from the father, not towards him. The son, by ascending into the light, rising higher on the corporate ladder and achieving enlightenment, to some extent redeems the father’s name… Society without the father produces these birdlike men, so intense, so charming, so open to addiction, so sincere, as those great bays of the Hellespont produced the cranes Homer noticed that flew in millions toward the sun.”

What can be done to try to cure this father-deficiency? Well, first we must understand the problem, which goes well beyond mere lack of time spent with the father. After all, throughout history fathers have been busy, off hunting, or farming, or in the shop. So while the quantity of time spent with the father is certainly important, more important are the qualities of the father which are on display during that time.

In the modern family, the competencies of the father are almost entirely centered in a workplace that remains utterly opaque to his children. His experiences, his skills, his struggles, failures, and victories, and the respect of his associates are all hidden from his family.

A few weeks ago, while spending the night at my father’s house I could not help overhearing him leading a conference call in the next room. As I half-listened to him confidently directing colleagues on the other side of the globe, I was struck by the fact that my father is, in fact, quite good at what he does. It’s not that I hadn’t known that before, but the intensity with which I realized it while actually listening to him conduct business – something I’d never done before – was actually quite startling.

Instead of observing their father’s competencies, children are usually treated to a view of him at his most limited, treading more-or-less awkwardly in a realm in which the mother is the expert. (Generalizing to the family structure which remains most common in America, of course.) She knows where things are, what must be done, and how to do it, and, through no fault of her own, quite outshines the father in her command of most domestic situations. The man who might be capable of programming supercomputers, commanding battalions of soldiers, or performing lifesaving operations is reduced to hollering, “Honey, do I need to cover this dish when I put it in the microwave?”

A part of the solution to this deficiency can be found in introducing children to their father’s work, taking them, in Bly’s words, “into his factory, judge’s chambers, used-car lot, or insurance building.” The difficulty, of course, is that many jobs just don’t lend themselves to observation, particularly by children with limited attention spans. Today, I could appreciate my father’s teleconference, but try to sit me down to listen to a lengthy meeting or analyze a spreadsheet back when I was ten, and I probably would have called Social Services. With the exception of a fortunate few, the average worker today faces a similar dilemma. What child would be excited to learn about C++ functions or the intricacies of actuarial calculation?

That being said, the typical office worker should not assume his children would not benefit from some exposure to his work. Seeing where Daddy works and observing the respect of coworkers is not insignificant for a young boy or girl. However, today’s worker usually needs to do more than simply exposing his children to his working environment. This is one of the reasons why I believe it is so valuable for men to cultivate handyman or outdoor skills.

The man who can change his car’s oil, fix a leaky faucet, put up a shed, skin a deer, or gentle a horse has a precious opportunity to display the competence and confidence that his children, and particularly his sons, have such a deep need to experience. There are other venues for displaying ability, of course: through the arts, or community leadership, or technological prowess for example. However, few things can beat simple manual skill to interest and impress children of all ages. (I still chuckle at the memory of two small children standing wide-eyed and on tip-toes next to the bathtub in a friend’s house while I simply changed a showerhead.) Anyone who has observed a little boy trailing along after his father, plastic tools in hand and ready to “help,” knows that herein lies a powerful avenue to a child’s psyche.

Whatever avenue one chooses – and it should be unique to each man and his interests, family, and work – the structure of the modern world means that today’s “hidden” fathers must put extra thought and extra effort into allowing their children to experience a maleness they can respect, appreciate, and, in the case of sons, emulate.

In which I eventually get around to discussing sex and purity

As I glanced through one of evangelical Christianity’s best-selling books on male sexual purity this afternoon, I was struck anew by the fact that there is something deeply wrong with the way that this most-important of topics is usually addressed. The book’s central message (illustrated with creepily-gratuitous anecdotes of sexual sin), could be summarized, “To be male is to be inevitably drawn to sexual perversity and misconduct by the almost-irresistible force of your masculine sexual energy. Your job as a Christian is to spend the rest of your life holding back the force of this tide, while using your wife to funnel off as much sexual energy as possible to ease the arduous task of maintaining sexual purity.”

Faced with so overwhelming a task, and one so apparently at odds with one’s most basic nature, it is small wonder so many young men don’t bother to try at all; or, if they do try, end up struggling and exhausted by a task made impossibly strenuous by their misunderstanding.

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Any discussion of sexual purity ought to begin, not with sex, but with morality generally. And any discussion of morality must begin with the self, and the effects of our choices and behavior on our self.

By “the self,” I mean that part of me which I most truly and deeply am; that part which is immortal, who I am now and ever will be, eternity without end. It’s a rather sobering thought, this realization that I cannot escape my self. If you mess up your first car, or your first marriage, it is at least possible to get a new one; not so one’s self.

And “mess up” we can, for the self is in a continual state of transition. In fact, the self changes its own nature, by its own choices, like a block of granite come alive to sculpt itself. Every choice I make shapes my self just a little bit, making me not quite what I was before: piling on something new, stripping off something old, changing the shape of what I am by perhaps imperceptible degrees.

Both good and evil become easier with practice, not merely through habituation, but because the doer is making himself more and more the sort of person for whom such acts come naturally. (And “naturally” is exactly the right word, for it is his very nature which is being shaped by his choices.) The man who beats his children, the boy who pulls the wings off butterflies, and the girl who passes along cruel gossip are all following the same blueprint in their self-transformation; the difference is merely one of degree, rather than kind. We cannot help but be shaped by what we do.

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The tragedy of fallen mankind is the downward spiral in which corrupt choices shape corrupted selves whose further choices can only continue the hopeless pattern. Christian morality offers escape from this pattern, holding out the blueprint for right choices – for the choices that will lead to true joy and meaning in right relationship with God and with our fellow humans – while divine grace makes possible those right choices which would otherwise be impossible for our broken selves.

And because right choices, like evil, shape the self, this divinely-enabled right conduct will inevitably result in selves for whom goodness is increasingly pleasant. The man who loves his neighbor because he ought soon finds himself loving his neighbor merely because he does!

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And this brings us back to where we started, on the topic of sexual purity. The divine rule as regards sex is fairly simple: It is a good which is to be enjoyed within the bounds of a marriage between a man and a woman.

In other words, when humans were invented as sexual beings, that was how sex was supposed to work; what it is designed to be. For a properly-functioning human creature – either male or female – this is what is best. What is natural. What offers highest joy and highest pleasure, in the fullest sense of the words. Anything else can only be corruption and diminution, because that is all that evil can offer.

Of course, this means that sexual purity would be terribly easy, if only we were properly-functioning human creatures. Unfortunately, even after turning towards Christ, the process by which we are straightened and restored is a slow and at-times-painful one. In the meantime, in sex as in the rest of our lives, we find ourselves in love with what is lesser, meaner, and lower. The desire is no less real for being unnatural and deathly. Like a falcon that has been taught to seek only rotting carrion, our own corrupted desires betray us.

This is where so many Christians, with the best intentions, fail to make a crucial distinction. When a man views pornography, for example, he is not acting out of a natural masculinity that must be suppressed for the sake of righteousness. Rather, he is dining on rotten, maggoty carrion unawares. And so long as he gluts on what is lower, he is ingraining ever deeper in himself a distaste for what is truly good and an appetite for what is death to him. This is why the excuse, “I’ll stop viewing pornography once I’m married” would be laughable if it were not so tragic. Oh no, he won’t stop, not for long, for he has just spent years making himself exactly the sort of person who needs pornography. Marriage will not – can not – make him a different person than what he has himself created.

However, there is a flip side that offers tremendous hope to those who struggle with sexual sin. For just as choosing what is corrupt cannot help but cultivate one’s appetite for what is lower, so also, choosing – by the grace of God – what is higher will create a love for what is higher and better. (A love which grows more naturally and swiftly because of the goodness of its object.) The man who chooses not to view pornography, or have extramarital sex, or sin sexually in some other way, is not only not sinning at the moment of his choice, but is inexorably making himself the sort of man who loves what is actually good and so will make the right choice tomorrow as well.

None of this is to say that it is easy to be sexually virtuous. Far from it. The choices to which I just so casually referred are agonizingly difficult, particularly in a culture in which most young men are exposed to sexual perversion so early that they have developed a taste for it before they really even understand what it is. “Oh, but God will help me.” Yes, He will. That doesn’t mean the choice will be easy – it means what would otherwise be impossible will be possible. Barely.

It’s a choice that must be made daily, again and again, and one which is particularly difficult initially, as the grooves and pits worn in the self by unnatural appetites are destroyed. However, those who try can know two things: The change is possible, by the grace of God, if we will only choose it. And when the choice is made, it will result in the sort of man who loves what is good; what is natural; what is real.

Thoughts on video games

A recent discussion in one of my classes regarding video games inspired me to summarize my thoughts on the topic here. There are two issues that must be considered when evaluating if and to what extent a video game is acceptable.

The first area to be evaluated relates to the content of the game itself. Any game in which a player is rewarded for behavior which would be wrong in real life should not be tolerated. Grand Theft Auto, in which players are encouraged to shoot police officers and prostitutes, is an obvious example of this sort of game. Some might argue that the rules are different in virtual reality – after all, you aren’t actually shooting anybody, and a computer pixel is just a computer pixel. Nobody is actually hurt when you beat up the prostitute or line up your sights on the back of the police officer’s head.

And that’s true. The problem, though, is not what you are doing to the policeman; rather, what shooting the policeman is doing to you. Every choice we make inexorably changes who we are on a fundamental level. We create our character by the choices we make, and no choice is without consequence. Every time I look away when someone is in trouble, I become a little more of a coward; every time I ignore the bank error in my favor, I become a little more of a cheat; every time I kick the dog, a little more cruel. Our choices make us. Hoping otherwise is like wishing that gravity would relent.

How does this apply to video games? Because video games make us choose as well. We must choose to beat the prostitute or shoot the policeman. Of course, doing so in virtual reality is less-worse than doing so in real life, but it’s merely a question of degree. American soldiers train with video-game-style simulators because experience in virtual reality transfers so easily to real life.

Beating the prostitute draws you a little closer to being the sort of man who beats women. Shooting the cop makes you value innocent life a little bit less. Obviously, this does not mean that everyone who plays GTA will becoming a cop-killing woman-beater. However, their soul has been nudged a bit farther in that direction. It is simply impossible to choose evil – even virtually – without effect. Do we really want to make the argument, “Well, yes, my soul is becoming more and more the soul of a man who would beat a woman, but I wouldn’t ever actually beat women, so it’s okay”?

It should be noted that the foregoing is not intended to be an argument against all violent video games. After all, violence is not inherently evil. Who would not want a man to be ready to defend those in need, or fight against an invading enemy, or perhaps braid a scourge of cords and clear the Temple courts? Now, I’m not suggesting that video games are the best training for such acts of appropriate violence, but a game in which players battle a legitimate enemy while following specified rules of engagement (like many war games, for example), would at least not carry the same inherent moral danger as a game in which the violence is unequivocally immoral. On the other hand, there are other concerns to be raised against even a game with unobjectionable content, which brings us to the second issue that must be considered in a discussion of the value of video games.

In a nutshell, the interactive, immersive quality of video gaming (one that will only increase) creates the possibility of its serving as a sort of “life placebo.” Why bother with the challenges, struggles, and hard-bitten victories of real life when you can pull up a game and experience the same feelings of triumph without the trouble and with the added benefit of a “reset” button if things get out of hand? In Boys Adrift, Dr. Leonard Sax writes,

It’s not hard to see how boys motivated by the will to power might have been successful in earlier generations. They might have grown up to be successful entrepreneurs, daring innovators, explorers, politicians, or soldiers. They could readily create a productive niche for themselves. […]

If these men were reborn today, it is less likely that they would undertake a meaningful career. I suspect that a boy born today with the DNA of General Patton or Howard Hughes would more likely become a video game addict. He might have a job, but there’s a real risk that his drive and his energy would be directed into the video games rather than into his career. […]

Football coach Greg Sullivan, Mr. Welsh’s colleague, says that he sees fewer and fewer boys playing outside when he drives around northern Virginia. “They are inside playing video games,” he says. “More kids are finding real sports too demanding.”

I’ve talked with other football coaches who describe, with amazement, teenage boys who think that because they can win at Madden NFL, they therefore know something about playing the real-life game of football. “These guys are five-minute wonders,” one coach told me. “They get out on the field, run around for a few minutes, and then they’re done. They have no endurance. They’re in pathetic shape. And they don’t want to do the work that they would have to do, to train the way they would have to train, to get in shape.”

Virtual success is much easier than real life, and no less satisfying if one doesn’t think about it too much. The flood of endorphins from a virtual touchdown or a virtual military victory is just as real, even if the accomplishment itself is not. Because video games so effectively mimic the rewards that once could only be achieved by actually living, they can divert the drive that pushes a young man toward lasting and meaningful accomplishment. If a boy has been too busy developing his skills in virtual reality to learn how to grit his teeth, dig his heels in, and do something real, when will he ever learn?

Of course, a few hours of Halo aren’t going to destroy a boy’s life, and most boys who play video games are able to do so in moderation. Picking up a joystick doesn’t immediately condemn you to a life in which your greatest accomplishment is saved on a hard drive. However, video games should be approached with the cautious awareness that they offer a powerful draw to invest too much of ourselves into struggles which are ultimately without meaning. As Plutarch observes in his Lives, “He who busies himself in mean occupations produces, in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use, an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good.”

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.

A vampire gentleman

In an interesting review of the execrable Twilight series for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan suggests that a major factor in the series’ popularity with teenage girls is the unique dynamic between Bella, the female protagonist, and her love interest Edward, who inconveniently happens to be a vampire. Flanagan writes,

Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof. […]

As he gradually explains, Edward has been avoiding and scorning Bella not because he loathes her but because he is so carnally attracted to her that he cannot trust himself to be around her for even a moment. The mere scent of her hair is powerful enough that he is in a constant struggle to avoid taking—and thereby destroying—her. […]

The erotic relationship between Bella and Edward is what makes this book—and the series—so riveting to its female readers. There is no question about the exact nature of the physical act that looms over them. Either they will do it or they won’t, and afterward everything will change for Bella, although not for Edward. Nor is the act one that might result in an equal giving and receiving of pleasure. If Edward fails—even once—in his great exercise in restraint, he will do what the boys in the old pregnancy-scare books did to their girlfriends: he will ruin her. More exactly, he will destroy her, ripping her away from the world of the living and bringing her into the realm of the undead. […] In the course of the four books, Bella will be repeatedly tempted—to have sex outside of marriage, to have an abortion as a young married woman, to abandon the responsibilities of a good and faithful mother—and each time, she makes the “right” decision. The series does not deploy these themes didactically or even moralistically. Clearly Meyer was more concerned with questions of romance and supernatural beings than with instructing young readers how to lead their lives. What is interesting is how deeply fascinated young girls, some of them extremely bright and ambitious, are by the questions the book poses, and by the solutions their heroine chooses.

It appears that young women are tired of a culture where being a gentleman means not forcing yourself on the girl after she says no. There is something wrong with a relationship dynamic where it is the woman’s role to persist in holding off an infantilized male bent on going as far as she will allow, and ironically enough, we have left it up to a moody, vegetarian vampire to remind us of that fact.