We are seeing today a rebooting of the radical individualism of the 1970's and '80's. It was Tom Wolfe who originally named the 70's in particular "The Me Decade," but the consumeristic excess and further political polarization of the 80's only compounded the aggressive narcissism of the culture, especially among men. Think of Wall Street's Gordon Gecko or Sylvester Stallone's Rambo rolled into one.
In the 90's and 00's we experimented with a kinder, gentler masculinity, but without Christ at the center, sensitive manhood becomes milquetoast, passive, pathetic. And without Christ at the center, rugged, aggressive manhood becomes, to use a phrase not uncontroversial today, "toxic masculinity."
And so now, even this very day and week, our culture is wrestling with the heart of masculinity.
Every several years, we see these micro-movements arise, sometimes as a response to alleged feminization of Christianity, sometimes as a reaction to feminist influence in general. We’ve seen the come and go of The Promise Keepers. As they were too touchy-feely and too Baby Boomer-centric, we then saw the swell and crest of the John Eldredge Wild at Heart trend. As that was not theological or hipster enough, we then saw the rise and fall of macho Calvinism. Vestiges of each of these movements still fill various tide pools on the rocky shore of the church today. But the current wave of manhood reclamation is something different. The current wave seems to be an odd convergence of Jungian pyschology and right-wing politics, a multi-pronged response to hipster softness, political correctness, and a perceived infiltration of evangelicalism by cultural Marxism.
Today’s evangelical hyper-masculinity proliferates among anonymous Twitter accounts and boisterous YouTube channels. Its advocates quote Scripture alongside non-Christian political theorists and philosophers, and even voices from the so-called "intellectual dark web." It has co-opted jargon first pioneered online by the political alt-right and Internet white supremacists. These voices have taken to categorizing men as either “alpha” or “beta,” classifications that most recently came to resurgence within misogynistic web forums.
Is there good in young men rejecting passivity, taking responsibility, and seeking to better themselves and the world around them? Yes, undoubtedly. But the arteries of anger, victimhood, and aggressive machismo running through the new movement do not bode well. We have seen the story of toxic masculinity play out time and time again, and it never ends neatly.
The hyper-masculine evangelical man comes across the apostle Paul telling the Judaizers to emasculate themselves (Gal. 5:12) and builds an entire persona around the verse while disregarding the vast amount of ink spent on gentleness, quietness, peaceability, and self-control. None of those qualities are conducive to the kind of power these aspiring alpha males want. But they are exceptionally conducive to the kind of power Jesus promises us through the Spirit.
I do not see much talk amongst any tribe of Christian men today about meekness. Every now and again some author or preacher will define meekness for men as “power under control,” which is a fine definition as far as it goes, but it always feels a bit like spin to me, a way to make what Christ commends sound more appealing to those least interested in it.
The wild-at-heart alpha male believes the world is what he makes it. And the world he makes turns out not so hospitable to those unlike him, and not really worthy of his own imaging of God.
By contrast, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5, ESV). Paul says, “I appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:1) and “we were gentle among you, as a nurse nurtures her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7).
What are they commending as a thoroughly Christlike disposition? Power under control, I suppose you could say. But more accurately, weaponized weakness. Not passivity. Not spinelessness. But a fearless humility resting in the Spiritual security of Christ.
What does it look like?
In action, meekness often means not having to have the last word. Meekness means not feeling like every online scrum and outrage du jour needs your two cents, much less your forty-five minute point-by-point podcast debunking. Meekness isn’t afraid of losing face, being seen as weak, being misjudged or underestimated. Meekness is not concerned that you feel the weight of it—and thus you do.
Every now and again I read some male diatribe against the feminization of the church, explaining why men don’t go to church services. This explains the rise of alternate, tribal church experiences like “biker church” or “cowboy church.” These men cannot abide church experiences that do not center their feelings and interests. They are not secure enough for that.
It turns out that the hyper-masculine man is a lot more fragile than we thought.
He really must feel uncomfortable by the Sermon on the Mount. Because only namby-pamby pushovers walk second miles and give shirts to those who ask for coats. The alpha male cannot make heads or tails of “blessed are the meek.”
The devil, we should add, hates meekness. He himself of course is not meek, and he does not nurture it among his unwitting quarry. Passivity, yes. Meekness, no.
Thus, seeking meekness is audacious. It is counter-cultural in both the world and evangelicalism and therefore it is an invitation to be despised. But the truly meek aren't worried. Their manhood does not rest on outward exhibitions or the approval of other men.
What the devil wants from us is aggressive and assertive self-interest. If the Great Commandment is to love God first and neighbor second, our enemy would love if we’d all just look out for “number one.” The feeding of our pride is a key campaign strategy for his minions, because “Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).
In the end, those who believe the world is what they make it will discover themselves in a wasteland of their own devising.
But the meek? They will live forever.