The Way of Masculinity: Tradition, Ferocity & Quest

Feast of St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem

Christ_Square.jpegI RECENTLY read two books with very different articulations of masculinity: The Way of Men by Jack Donovan and the book that launched John Eldredge's ministry, Wild at Heart. I want to distill what they share in common, where they differ, and where I fall.

Donovan is a self-confessed atheist who nevertheless draws material and inspiration from religious (often though not exclusively Christian) and Classical sources in his attempt to describe masculinity.

Eldredge is an evangelical who is widely read in the classical Christian tradition, being able to quote such figures as Sts. Irenaeus and Augustine and, more recently, the Orthodox writer, Met. Anthony Bloom of Blessed Memory.

I think both men agree on the centrality of three ideas for understanding manhood, albeit refracted through their respective worldviews and defined in different ways: tradition, ferocity, and quest.

First, both Donovan and Eldredge subscribe to the view that, in Donovan's words, "masculinity is what men expect from other men": that masculinity is "bestowed" upon men by men, as Eldredge emphatically and repeatedly insists. Both authors look primarily not to psychology or biology (which play real, but subordinate roles in both of their works) but to the vast wealth of cultural and historical understandings of manhood as their basis (Eldredge, obviously, leans more heavily on the biblical tradition than does Donovan, though Donovan occasionally draws from that well also).

I would capture both ideas by saying that masculinity is traditioned: it is something received by men from the men who came before them and imparted both to the men who follow them as well as to their peers. For both men, the primary institutions for this traditioning are fatherhood and groups of men: what Donovan calls "the gang" and what Eldredge refers to in other works by reference to King David's mighty men. For Eldredge, the additional category—which comes naturally to the minds of Orthodox and Catholic Christians—is the idea of spiritual fatherhood, or spiritual mentorship that includes but also transcends the natural institution of fatherhood. The father of one's flesh has indeed a vital role in the spiritual formation of the man, but other men must also come along to initiate him into masculinity.

A key alternative that both authors reject is the idea that masculinity can be bestowed or affirmed by women—that men can go to women to learn, develop, and be confirmed in their identity as men. For both Donovan and Eldredge, this is a mistake, though for markedly different reasons: Donovan is something of a sexist and feels as though it is inherent to women to lure men away from manhood; Eldredge, by stark contrast, understands that women can, in their womanhood, awaken men to be men, but that men must offer women their strength, rather than seeking to derive it from women (a process which Eldredge describes in all its spiritual ruination for both a man and his wife).

Second, intrinsic to masculinity for both Donovan and Eldredge is an inherent ferocity. Donovan thinks that this is most properly expressed as violence, and draws on a wealth of psychology, biology, linguistics, and history to develop this point: manhood has traditionally been defined by the way in which men use strength, courage, and mastery for the accomplishment of one's own goals and that of the group, resulting in honor (chiefly in the context of hunting or military violence). Eldredge draws on a wealth of figures, historical and fictional (his favorites are the fictionalized William Wallace from Braveheart and Russel Crowe's Maximus from the movie Gladiator), for whom literal violence is a testing grounds for their masculinity. But the main battle that Eldredge sees is a cosmic and spiritual one: men must use their gift of ferocity to do battle with Satan and the demons. Physical violence is for Eldredge a sort of icon for spiritual warfare. But the ferocity in the heart of men for Eldredge is not merely a divine gift in light of the Fall, an inherently negative quality necessitated by the transformation of the cosmos into an arena. Instead, it has an originally positive dimension: men are created with ferocity because of the divine imperative to fill, subdue, and rule the earth, the summons to use strength and courage to master the world in mediation of God's powerful, wise, and loving rule.

Last, both Donovan and Eldredge agree that men are by nature adventurous, that the role of quest in the development and expression of masculinity is key. Men have an intrinsic need not just to battle in the abstract, but to have a particular battle to wage. Men have a deep and primal need to explore and subdue, and when this is not fulfilled, spiritual, emotional, and physical atrophy are soon to follow. Donovan spends some three or four chapters lamenting the "bonobo masturbation society" that dominates Western culture in the present: a society where men have no need to truly struggle for the things that have traditionally required their struggle (food, home, sex, etc.). Though an unbeliever, he wagers that he would "happily fall to [his] knees and praise any righteous god that will tear down this Tower of Babel" that has been erected by modernity. Eldredge, likewise, acknowledges that modernity has wrought devastation for the masculine soul, especially in its deprivation of adventure, and recommends a return to the wilderness for men in pursuit of authentic masculinity.

Again, the difference in worldviews dictates the difference in vision. For Donovan, the "quest" of men is heavily related to territorial, tribal expansion and protection for a gang and its attached civilian members. For Eldredge the quest revolves around the cosmic scope of the Gospel and taking up one's place in it, as well as understanding how the whole of one's life relates to it.

In each case, where both authors differ, I find myself siding with Eldredge. But I also find many of Donovan's insights to be important and sobering. Donovan is straightforwardly correct in asserting that the Classical hallmarks of masculinity are defined by literal and highly physical definitions of strength, courage, mastery, and honor, and that these traits have been defined for most of human history by some kind of relationship to violence—whether demonstration of heroism in the hunt or bravery and victory on the battlefield (to demonstrate this point, Donovan has an excellent meditation on the linguistic roots of the Greek word andreia and its Latin counterpart, virtus, both of which mean "manliness"). Donovan is also correct, I think, in his contention that society spends much of its efforts and resources trying to control the manliness that usually established it—his favorite example is Rome, which began through the bravery and courage of a handful of men, gradually grew into a large empire, and then atrophied as it became more complex and less hospitable to the kinds of men who founded it. But I think the more relevant one would easily be the United States, which has experienced a practically parallel history. I also confess that I feel a deep empathy for the suffocation of masculinity that Donovan feels in modern society and his dissatisfaction with intellectualized or spiritualized forms of the masculine struggle—though I also acknowledge the legitimacy of those struggles more so than Donovan does.

In short, I find Eldredge to be something of a spiritual corrective to Donovan's view, which suffers from a sort of entropy and inability to provide an ultimately satisfying vision of masculinity. Donovan's desire for the collapse of the nanny state and the resurrection of the gang (captured in his contention that the reason why disaster porn is so successful is that "the apocalypse—any apocalypse—is an opportunity" for something new and unburdened by the gridlock of our present world order), while something that I am sympathetic to, does not provide an answer to the larger trend he describes: how the masculine project of exploring and expanding territory ultimately seems to fold in on itself since eventually the society founded by such men comes to regard similar men as liabilities. In each case, the aspects that I appreciate about Donovan's work can be found in Eldredge, though tempered and vivified by a belief in the God of Abraham and His Son, Jesus Christ, and refracted through a more holistic anthropology that includes the spirit and heart of man (though Donovan deserves praise here also for acknowledging the influence and role of the thumos).

As an Orthodox Christian undertaking his first serious re-reading of Eldredge since his evangelical days, I find Eldredge surprisingly Orthodox in much of his approach, posture, and understanding of theology and the Christian life. Some of Eldredge's central theses and themes accord directly with the way in which Orthodoxy articulates the Christian faith, especially his foundational assertion that the wildness of heart for which men are to strive is rooted itself in the Living God, who rarely does things the same way twice and and who often does things that shock, surprise, and scandalize those looking on, precisely because man is created according to the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-28). In Orthodoxy, this is most directly expressed through the apophatic way of theology, emphasizing the distinction between the divine essence which is unknowable and the divine activity, which invite us into real relationship with and intimate knowledge of the God who acts, but in a way that ultimately discredits formulaic and "scientific" approaches to the divine. Fundamentally, a Living God is a person—better yet, a communion of persons—who makes free decisions and choices to interact with a creation that is otherwise irrevocably ontologically separate from him, and who cannot be boxed in or limited by human comprehension. The only way to relate to God is to relate to him personally, not as an experimental subject.

Moreover, Eldredge's anthropology—acknowledging both the unity and the diversity inherent in men and women in the way that they bear the divine image in the world, and what men and women uniquely reflect about the God whose image they bear—reminds me very deeply of such writers as Met. Kallistos Ware and Fr. John Behr, both of whom uphold the patristic assertion that there is a commonly shared human nature that bears the divine image but also that manhood and womanhood are unique in their particular expression of the divine image, a truth that is also experienced in the practical liturgical existence of the Church.

Finally, Eldredge’s argument for masculinity articulates what I have experienced in the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy demands from men all of their lives, including their material existence, to be energized and vivified by the Spirit through a constant struggle to empty the self, fight the passions, pray, fast, show humility, lead well, etc., Orthodoxy has a historically demonstrable apostolic pedigree and catholic character. And Orthodoxy continues to churn out and celebrate in a liturgical context men who demonstrate holiness of life and the image of God.

David Armstrong is an Orthodox Christian who enjoys a shameless love affair with Jews, Judaism, and other Christians. He is currently an Accelerated Masters student in Religious Studies at Missouri State University in Springfield, MO, where he is nearing completion of his undergraduate degree in Religious Studies with a minor in Classical Greek. He has an avid interest in far too many things, and would do well to specialize.


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  • Mrd
    commented 2016-10-21 20:19:18 -0500
    David, as I read more of Donovan and start to see his fantasy of living like a Norseman and his struggles with his own sexuality I think his writings are a way to put a face on his own inner demons. He makes some great points and observations but that’s all it is. Thanks
  • Mrd
    commented 2016-10-19 13:15:20 -0500
    Thanks much for the reply back. I love this topic and see such a need for Catholic and Orthodox men to form tight groups and friendships but have found it difficult in my own life, so much that I scramble and reach for any info to help make that happen. I see so many men drowning in a busy domestic slumber, myself included. I agree with your assessment of Donovan’s views but I do have to admit his direct approach in his delivery is very refreshing.

    Forgive my bad grammar I’m typing on my phone.

    Keep up the good work

    Any good books with a solid foundation on this topic you can recommend?

  • David Armstrong
    commented 2016-10-19 10:35:27 -0500

    I’m not sure if Donovan is necessarily drawing on Genesis 3:16. Donovan’s an atheist with a respectful attitude towards a plurality of religious traditions, including Christianity, but his atheism and zero-sum approach to masculinity and, well, the world in general makes him an avowed sexist. For Donovan, the whole world is locked into an entropic repetition whereby the achievements of truly masculine men end up becoming imperial super-complexes that then have to be torn down so that the process can repeat. Donovan is a tribalist and an anti-imperialist, and that’s the context within which to understand his comments about women: women lure men away from the qualities and activities that make them men and, hence, that build up the tribe. To some extent for Donovan, that’s their job: they are there to soften and tame men, because the rules of the margin don’t apply in the camp. The margin and its rules exist to protect and provide for the camp, but the camp operates according to a different mode of existence.

    So, in that sense, I think Donovan’s right, but I don’t think that a faithful Jew or Christian could embrace his sexism, since for us humanity is created in the image of God male and female and, thus, the way of masculinity and the way of femininity are both authentic ways of human being and becoming. As a Christian, I don’t think it’s possible to fully embrace Donovan’s vision. Christians affirm Yeshua of Nazareth as the heir to the throne of David (Luke 1:32-33), and look forward to his future imperial rule of all of the nations and the ends of the earth, as is promised to the Davidic monarch (e.g., Psalm 2:7-9). His emphasis on tribalism is good as far as it goes—we do need to form tightly knit communities within which brotherhoods of men flourish and play a guiding role in shaping the life of the community, as husbands, fathers, defenders, and providers. And, typically, tribalism wins out over globalism. All agreed. But we need to remember that the end game for us Christians is a global empire centered in the person of Christ, which includes and encompasses all of the nations and tribes of the earth AS nations and tribes, but which also harmonizes them and ends the conflicts between them, such that their individual identities are no longer the source of competition but rather a cause for mutual celebration.

  • Mrd
    commented 2016-10-19 09:40:31 -0500
    In paragraph 7 you say Donovan feels as though it inherent for women to lure men away from manhood. That seems correct to me especially in light of the account in Genesis 3:16 “your desire will be for your husband”

    Great topic. Give us more
  • Joseph Stanga
    commented 2016-03-11 20:39:00 -0600
    Interesting piece. I think you would do well to read some Orson Scott Card sometime. Particularly, the Homecoming series, which amply demonstrates Card’s personal view of masculinity, filtered though it is through a lens of Mormonism.
  • Joseph Stanga
    followed this page 2016-03-11 20:33:00 -0600