A recent trailer for a Christian men’s conference crossed into near-viral territory—for all the wrong reasons.
In less than sixty seconds of footage—cut with samurai quickness—images of monster trucks, BMX tricks, MMA fighting, pyrotechnics, gunplay, and bro-hugs collide in spectacle. It feels like the producers read a few cursory paragraphs about American masculinity from a textbook, slammed it shut and went straight to work.
Many discharged the necessary pot shots and others delivered a fair amount of nuanced analysis. I’m not offering a thinkpiece about that. Easy targets deserve as little fire as possible.
However, the video rattled around my brain long enough to provoke a question: What do men need?
A Call to the Depths of Us
A few days after I discovered that video, my friend Bobby and I attended a Julien Baker show.
Of the two of us, Bobby owns the more stereotypically masculine résumé: A former high-school football star, he lifts weights, drinks fine scotches, and looks exactly like a twenty-first-century Charles Spurgeon. On at least two occasions, my stomach has gloried in his ability to perform a hog roast. He also plays the piano like a dream, and easily cries at gospel proclamations and stories of grace.
I wear a beard and worship at the altar of team sports. But no more than two or three athletic bones exist in my body—I know more about poets and jazz pianists than carburetors or power tools. My interests don’t surpass or submit to anyone else’s. They just are.
We didn’t show up to win a prize or establish our feminist bonafides at a female artist’s concert. We came because the deep in Julien Baker’s songs call to whatever deep resides within us.
Just twenty-two years old, and with two albums to her name, Baker delivers melodies that could launch a thousand ships, dash them against the rocks and tend to the shipwrecked—often within the same song. A simple, yet staggering affair, just a twenty-two-year-old artist, a couple guitars, a keyboard and emotionally naked storytelling.
The evening offered no fire-breathing battle cries or feats of strength. We came to have our feelings unraveled, then lovingly stitched back together by an artist with a high emotional IQ. We are men, and this is what we needed.
Soft and Strong
A. W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
We don’t need to relocate that primary importance from “what comes into our mind” to “what comes into our feelings.” But our most hyperactive forms of men’s ministry don’t claim to be about theology either. They don’t want you to cultivate your mind as much as they want you to have an experience, then chase that experience out the doors to a more faithful life.
At moments in which beauty washes over me and my heart softens to others, what I believe and know tends to rise to the surface. My theology of burden and blessing, my desire to love my neighbor as myself, my knowledge that my neighbor and I need the same savior, hold fast. I chase that out the doors toward higher fidelity.
The world doesn’t need men to be categorically stronger or categorically softer. It needs men who are strong in the right ways, and soft in the right places.
Men strong enough to reject conventional power structures and defend sexual abuse survivors. Men strong in their resolve to use what strength they have on behalf of someone who lacks it. Strong enough to admit when they’re wrong and express weakness.
Men soft enough to be pulled apart by injustice. Soft enough to be malleable to the experiences of others. Soft enough to be moved by a poem, a Julien Baker song, or the words of Jesus.
Strong and soft, just like our savior was.
Manhood through Surrender
Jesus never asks us to fit a profile or answer a casting call. He calls us to come and die—perhaps not even to ourselves as much as to the type of man we thought we’d be.
He beckons us to leave behind every broken mold of manhood, every system that confuses power and strength. Leaving these devices at the cross, we find faithful manhood through surrender. We might be surprised at the shape it takes and the shapes it accepts.
Men don’t need to squeeze into a one-size-fits-all story. They need to let Jesus have his way with each and every one of their molecules. He fortifies all that needs strengthening and softens all that must be like clay.
Only then we are fit to be fit into the world he is building, men who need others—and him—more than our poster pictures of manhood.
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