I’m aware; toxic masculinity is a phrase of extreme controversy. Wrapped up in the phrase are hotly debated ideologies, fueled by very different perspectives on what a man is and should be.
At the center of these masculine critiques is a concern of over-identification with the attributes of violence, aggression, and dominance. In 2018, The American Psychological Association released findings entitled “Harmful masculinity and violence: Understanding the connection and approaches to prevention.”
The APA summarized:
“In early childhood, violence and aggression are used to express emotions and distress. Over time, aggression in males shifts to asserting power over another, particularly when masculinity is threatened. Masculine ideals, such as the restriction of emotional expression and the pressure to conform to expectations of dominance and aggression, may heighten the potential for boys to engage in general acts of violence including, but not limited to, bullying, assault, and/or physical and verbal aggression.”
The APA suggests that instead of maturing out of childhood aggression, our socially constructed masculine ideals teach men to identify with and lean into their aggressive traits. The APA also suggested that a struggle by some men to live up to these masculine expectations leads them to overcompensate with aggression and violence.
The APA is not wrong in recognizing and condemning the violence and aggression many men act out. In a previous article, I considered the significant evidence that something is deeply flawed in the lives of, particularly, young men. Violence is a part of the problem.
However, the APA study went on to make several suggestions to help solve toxic masculinity. Consider these three suggestions: “Address social norms condoning male dominance and violence,” “Create marketing campaigns designed to modify social and cultural norms that endorse the unhealthy male code and consequent violence,” “Identify and treat psychological distress precipitated by gender role socialization.”
What’s Wrong With Us is More Complicated… And Much Older
The problems facing men are more complicated than the APA acknowledges. What’s wrong with men is not something an ad campaign or a public service commercial can solve. And the ways men go wrong are far more complicated than violence and aggression. It’s also worth remembering; we are hardly the first to deal with these questions. The problem is much, much older.
There is an Irish proverb that goes, “For every mile of road, there are two miles of ditches.”
I’m worried that our conversations about toxic masculinity have become far too narrow. Our culture’s characterizations of toxic men are incomplete. There is more than one ditch on this path to understanding manhood. Avoiding one doesn’t guarantee to miss the other. In fact, many drivers have learned that the real danger can be over-correcting, which often leaves you in the ditch on the other side of the road.
The Biblical Take on Man’s Aggression
The opening chapters of Genesis narrate how the first couple’s act of disobedience proliferated into a world that could only be described as cruel and perverse. As God put it, “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually.” The evil which now dwelled in man’s heart spilled out across creation. Cain murdered his brother in premeditated hatred and soon men were killing and taking as it benefited them. We watch as Adam and Eve’s curse corrupts every corner of the human experience.
Just after Abel’s murder and Cain’s exile, we are given a genealogy of Adam’s descendants. Eventually, from the descendants of Cain came Lamech. Lamech was the first man to have two wives. More descriptively, Genesis records, “Lamech took two wives.” He was also the second to be credited with murder. He bragged about killing a younger, and, as seems to be implied, weaker man to his wives. He taunted, “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s (talking about one’s self in the third-person apparently being a universally recognized sign of a scumbag) is seventy-sevenfold.” It was a reference to God’s promise to protect Cain even in exile. Lamech boasted of his own vengeance and his own power for protection. It’s probably safe to call Lamech toxic.
The genealogies then lead us to what has to be one of the most perplexing passages in all of scripture—Genesis 6.
“When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose… The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth…”
Lamech’s taking of wives becomes the pattern, as these “sons of God” began to take wives as they pleased, or as these women pleased their eye. These were the mighty men of old. We know very little about them. Commentators aren’t sure how to translate Nephilim. It literally means “fallen ones,” but may also refer to these men and their offspring as giants. And what are we to make of the title “sons of God?” Tradition has it that these are spirit beings who slept with women to produce demigods, legendary men of renown.
Ancient Men of Renown
The ancient world is filled with stories of such men—heroes. Heracles and Achilles. Perseus and Orion. These were the men whose names are forever remembered, the men whose stories are recorded in songs and memorialized in constellations of the stars. That generations of men would model their lives after such figures is how history progresses.
We can’t be sure if Genesis saw these legendary “sons of God” figures as truly divine or only as figures of mythical lore, many having claimed divinity. Still, we do know two things about how Genesis evaluated them. First, their tactics were oppression, violence, and wicked pursuit. They conquered women as they conquered land and cities. As Leon Kass put it in his commentary on Genesis, following these heroes, “The rest of mankind goes boldly and heroically wild.”
They become toxic.
In response, God would no longer allow men to live for hundreds of years, inflicting lifetimes of brutality and pain. Still, the toxicity of mankind became so great that God “regretted” that he had made man at all. He would send a flood to purge the earth of their violence.
But the second, and maybe the most surprising lesson of Genesis, is that the heroes of old have no place in the history of God. Their names are washed away with their time and with their violent deeds. Their power, their achievements, and their conquests are dismissed with a single summary sentence. “These were the mighty men who were of old.” Genesis has no interest in remembering their names or their achievements.
While the ancient world delighted itself in all the nefarious and sordid details of their heroes’ lives, Israel’s God paid little attention.
As Psalm 37 put it, “In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land.”
The Man Who’s Name Was Remembered
Noah’s name is the one name remembered from those days. And what is it that placed Noah above the heroes of his age?
Genesis states simply: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.”
That is the full extent of what we know about Noah. These are the traits that earned him a place in the story of God. As one commentator put it, “we are put on notice that it is these qualities, not heroic manliness (prized everywhere else), that are divinely favored.” Noah walked with God.
Noah’s character is, however, more complicated than your Sunday school flannel-board may have presented it. In fact, there are tensions which run through the story of Noah which too few readers have recognized. Noah’s story is more thann an ark and animals. Noah’s story presents the full complexity of what it means to face our broken identity and to discover that there is more than one way we go wrong.
Our Expectations for Noah
Interestingly, the hairy-knuckled Lamech, who boasted of murder to his conquered wives, is not the only Lamech in Genesis’ genealogies. There was a second Lamech—Noah’s father.
Upon the birth of his son, this second Lamech named him Noah, explaining, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” In Hebrew, Noah sounds similar to the word, translated here, relief. Noah is a play on words for rest.
If the first Lamech was known for his bravado, this Lamech seems weary and pensive. The pain of centuries of toiling under the curse had left him longing for relief. His son might be the one to finally bring rest. No other son in all of the Genesis genealogies is given such expectations.
Both Lamechs were looking for relief, one by conquering it, the other hoping his son might accomplish what he had not. One through aggression, the other passively longing. Noah’s father makes no mention of God, but his hopes were messianic. Could Noah reverse the curse?
To then discover that Noah is, in fact, the single man to be recognized by God as worthy of saving, to the reader unaware of the story’s conclusion, the expectations could not be higher. But there is an interesting observation about Noah, which, once noticed, is impossible not to see. Noah never speaks.
He is the hope of humanity. He is the one selected by God. He is the one who thousands of years later, Fisher-Price continues to produce as a kids’ bath-time playset. Yet he moves through his own story speechless.
To his credit, Noah’s silence has the literary effect of reinforcing the consistency of his action and character. Each time God speaks, Noah obeys. There is no negotiating, no complaining, no boasting or fear. The simplicities by which God affirmed Noah’s righteousness is expressed in the simplicity of his obedience. His quiet dedication carried him through the floodwaters and onto dry ground where his silent sacrifice placed upon a fresh alter was received by God as a pleasing aroma.
But his long silence has another effect; it produces a jarring and horrific impact when Noah’s first utterance is a curse upon his own son. “Cursed be Canaan.”
Noah, the son who had been his father’s hope for rest from the cursed ground, now speaks his first words, a curse upon his own son to the devastation of his father’s hope.
The Second Ditch of Masculinity
I have often wondered about the world into which Noah stepped from the ark. The images of doves and rainbows tend to wash the story in a sense of newness: green meadows, snow-capped peaks, and bubbling streams rinsed of their previous pollution.
But Genesis states only that Noah stepped out onto dry ground. After a year of floating on the ark, months of water covering the earth, the landscape may have appeared more martian than utopian. The horizon must have been stripped of its trees and bushes, the ground caked and cracking with mud. The ark, weathered and beaten, now wedged useless in the rock. And the animals, which God acknowledged, would now fear men, scattered, leaving Noah and his family with only their stone-piled alter and a thin wisp of smoke rising to heaven above.
Back in 2005, a dam broke not far from where I live. At 5:00 am, and with no warning, 1.3 billion gallons of water were leased down the side of a Missouri mountain, draining the 50-acre reservoir in a few minutes. The water stripped the ground bare down to the bedrock, piling up trees like tooth-picks at the bottom. More than ten years later, you can still see evidence of the disaster. It is an unmeasurable fraction of the water that was released in Genesis.
Into that bleak landscape, God commanded them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” This had also been his garden imperative to the first couple, but this was no Eden, a reality which would soon be evident in more than scenery. Onto this panorama, God’s rainbow stretched across the sky. The scene provides even more profound significance. Its colors now the only vibrancy in an otherwise barren world. Though the destruction had been catastrophic, and its aftermath must have been staggering, the world was not dark. By God’s covenant, there was color, light, and promise.
Noah was once again silent.
What does Noah do with this new world, with these new promises of God’s faithfulness? Noah planted a vineyard. “He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent.” Noah cracked open a PBR and passed out half-naked on the couch. He becomes more Homer Simpson than Homer’s Odysseus.
Noah is alive—breathing at least—but unconscious and sprawled across the dirt floor, he has more in common with his neighbors washed away by the flood than his previous status of walking with God. And he is again silent, this time to his discredit. In Jewish history, Noah is credited with having invented alcohol, and he became the first of many who would disengage from the complexity of their world by the drink.
As G. K. Chesterton warned, “Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable.” Far from reversing the curse, man was once again naked and ashamed.
As Kass puts it, “Noah’s drunkenness robs him – of his dignity, his parental authority, and his very humanity. Prostrate rather than upright, this newly established master of the earth has, in the space of one verse, utterly lost his standing.”
The one who was described as walking with God drank himself into immobility—passive and disengaged.
It’s not clear if Noah’s son, Ham, only mocked his father’s indecency or, as has long been posited, took advantage of his father’s unconsciousness with more perverse intent. What we do know is that Noah awoke to realize his shame and cursed his son.
And so, having avoided the ditch of violence and aggression, Noah slid into the ditch of passive disengagement. It, too, divided and wounded his family.
The Danger of a Passive Man
It’s customary to describe the Bible as a patriarchal tool used by generations of men to justify their misogyny. Critics point to what are clear injustices and oppression against women. But such readings don’t pay close enough attention. It’s like a middle school student reading the first racist pejorative and concluding that To Kill A Mocking Bird is a racist book and its author, clearly, a racial bigot.
The Bible offers plenty of evidence for how men tread along in the ditch of aggression—Cain, Samson, and Amnon, to name only a few—but the Bible also suggests the devastating tendency of man’s passivity and just as many examples of its destructive force.
Once you’ve recognized it, you’ll see it stretched across the Biblical story: Adam’s passive taking of the fruit. Abraham’s yielding to a perverse plan. David unable to discipline his disintegrating family. Barak powerless to take up the sword. And Noah, drinking away his reality.
Men produce destruction by more than violence. To warn only of man’s aggression is to imply that passivity makes him safe. Nothing could be further from the truth, for we all know that most passivity is only another form of aggression. As the novelist, Agatha Christie put it, “A weak man in a corner is more dangerous than a strong man.”
It’s not hard to look beneath the surface of most passivity to discover a brooding aggression. Our term, passive-aggressive, was first coined by a WWII Army psychiatrist, William Menninger. He noticed that some soldiers, while not openly defiant, exhibited more subversive forms of “aggressiveness” by “passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency, and passive obstructionism.” Menninger coined the phrase, passive-aggressive.
Is it possible that Noah’s drunken detachment is itself a kind of aggression, a refusal to participate in what God had ordered, a rebellion of apathy?
I worry that while our culture, often rightfully, warns about the dangers of violent men, we have produced too many disengaged men. Men who bear no responsibility for their children, nor time, nor pain they passively inflict on others.
Our culture, influenced by the suggestions of organizations like the APA, suggests that what men need are new models, new expressions of masculinity. So our shows are full of bumbling fathers who stumble their way through episodes, more joke than character. They never understand their wives, they feel awkward talking with their kids, and only seem happy when at work or in front of the TV. We play a zero-sum game, believing that to elevate women necessitates we degrade men.
To some degree, the APA is right about needing new masculine models, but the biblical model does not seem to be one they are willing to consider. The Bible offers both a fuller warning and a better way.
The violence of Genesis is perpetrated by men who are desperate and insecure. They are godless men who, afraid of being weak, use power to protect themselves. They see the complexity of the world and attempt to control it. Passive men see the same complexity and, seeking the same control, they content themselves to face only the smallest realistic possibilities which they can rule.
Both are anxious. Both are insecure. Both acknowledge very little of themselves yet depend only on themselves. Both are wounded animals—fight and flight—overwhelmed by their wounds and simmering frustrations. Both are dangerous. Passive and aggressive.
The single flash of light that illuminates the darkness of Noah’s story is the simple phrase, “Noah walked with God.” Here is the path which rises above the ditches. Here is the path that saves us from ourselves. Here is the path that promises true rest.
But to walk with God implies a way ridiculed by both the aggressive and the passive—the sacrifice of control. Maybe the best description for this better way is the virtue of meekness… more on that in the next article.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30