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NewsNote: Masculinity in a Can, Fight Club at Church, and the Crisis of Manhood

You do not have to look far to find evidence of the fact that males are in trouble in these confused and confusing times. On the university campuses, women undergraduate students outnumber young men by a clear margin — 60% to 40%. A frightening percentage of young males are or have been behind bars, and the vast majority of young men are delaying their assumption of adult roles and responsibilities until well into their twenties or early thirties.

A crisis of fatherlessness marks the lives of millions of boys and young men, with boys growing up without fathers in the home now comprising a majority within some ethnic groups and urban populations. At almost every grade level, boys are performing below girls, and are often left behind as girls go on to more advanced levels of learning. Then, adding insult to injury, reports from scientists indicate that both sperm counts and testosterone levels are falling among some boys and men — blamed on anything from hormone supplements in the food chain to chemical contamination of ground water.

In many churches, young men and older boys are simply missing. The absence of young men ages 18 to 30 is just a fact of life in many congregations. Though this is especially acute in the mainline Protestant denominations, it is increasingly true of many evangelical churches as well.

One dimension of this problem is the difficulty of helping boys develop into manhood — a responsible, healthy, and meaningful manhood. Put simply, many of the most significant man-making institutions of our society are either gone or in big trouble. Military service is now both voluntary and no longer male-only. Organizations like the Boy Scouts attract more opposition and fewer boys. Even as the Boy Scouts of America marks the organization’s centennial this year, that proud American institution that shaped the lives of so many boys is marginalized and under attack.

Add the absence of fathers to all this and this society faces a challenge unprecedented in human history. A society cannot survive without a means of assisting boys to grow into responsible manhood. The same is true, of course, of the church — only in the church the stakes are even higher.

An enlightening (and oddly odorous) illustration of this social problem comes from The New York Times. Reporter Jan Hoffman tells of young boys now using “hypermasculine” products in order to demonstrate their masculinity and advertise their male identity — largely through the smells they put off.

Hoffman tells of Noah and Keenan Assaraf, age 13 and 14 respectively, who live near San Diego, where daily “they walk out the door in a cloud of spray-on macho,” according to their mom. The smell, she says, “drives me nuts.” Even as marketers insist the products are intended for young males ages 18 to 26, the products have now “reached into the turbulent, vulnerable world of their little brothers, ages 10 to 14.”

As Jan Hoffman explains:

Boys themselves, at a younger age, have also become increasingly self-conscious about their appearance and identity. They are trying to tame their twitching, maturing bodies, select from a growing smorgasbord of identities — goth, slacker, jock, emo — and position themselves with their texting, titillating, brand-savvy female peers, who are hitting puberty ever earlier.

And armies of researchers note that tween boys have modest disposable incomes, just fine for products that typically sell for less than $7.

“More insecurity equals more product need, equals more opportunity for marketers,” said Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University.

Insecurity seems to be a major motivating factor. Jake Guttenberg, a New York seventh grader, told the paper he uses one of these “deodorants” because, “I feel confident when I wear it.”

Lyn Mikel Brown of Colby College was blunt in her assessment: “These are just one of many products that cultivate anxiety in boys at younger and younger ages about what it means to man up . . . to be the kind of boy they’re told girls will want and other boys will respect. They’re playing with the failure to be that kind of guy, to be heterosexual even.”

Interestingly, Hoffman reports that these products are often bought for boys by their mothers, “simply relieved that their sons are thinking about body odor.” Just about any mom will nod in agreement at this point — but where are the dads?

These boys are acting out what society is telling them — urging them to be hypermasculine, hypersexualized, hyperconsumers. You don’t have to consult with Karl Marx to be leery of the marketing of these products to preteen boys. You do not have to know these boys to be saddened that while they understandably and naturally desire to grow up into manhood, think that “masculinity in a can” is the way to get there. Their desire to identify as masculine is natural and healthy — even essential — but the lack of real support in getting there leads them into confusion.

The New York Times also offers evidence of the crisis of manhood in a second article, in which reporter R. M. Schneiderman takes readers into a world of “mixed martial arts” in some evangelical churches and ministries.

“The outreach is part of a larger and more longstanding effort on the part of some ministers who fear that their churches have become too feminized, promoting kindness and compassion at the expense of strength and responsibility,” he explains.

From his report:

In the back room of a theater on Beale Street [in Memphis], John Renken, 37, a pastor, recently led a group of young men in prayer.

“Father, we thank you for tonight,” he said. “We pray that we will be a representation of you.”

An hour later, a member of his flock who had bowed his head was now unleashing a torrent of blows on an opponent, and Mr. Renken was offering guidance that was not exactly prayerful.

“Hard punches!” he shouted from the sidelines of a martial arts event called Cage Assault. “Finish the fight! To the head! To the head!

In order to reach young men, some churches are turning to mixed martial arts, defined as “a sport with a reputation for violence and blood that combines kickboxing, wrestling, and other fighting styles.”

The main issue here is not the legitimacy of martial arts, but the fact that these churches are making a self-conscious effort to reach young men and boys with some kind of proof that Christianity is not a feminized and testosterone-free faith that appeals only to women.

Of course, Christianity honors the man who fights “the good fight of faith,” and the most important fight to which a Christian man is called is the fight to grow up into godly manhood, to be true to wife and provide for his children, to make a real contribution in the home, in the church, and in the society, and to show the glory of God in faithfully living out all that God calls a man to be and to do. This means a fight for truth, for the Gospel, and for the virtues of the Christian life. The New Testament is filled with masculine — and even martial — images of Christian faithfulness. We must be unashamed of these, and help a rising generation of men and boys to understand what it means to be a man in Christ. The Christian man does not embrace brutality for the sake of proving his manhood.

This much is clear — we are living in strange times, getting stranger by the minute. Churches and parents are right to be concerned about the new challenges of helping boys to grow into manhood. The crisis is real, and this one demands urgent attention.

Boys will never find real masculinity in a can, but boys and young men should find respect for and examples of genuine manhood at church. What about your church?