the lost virtue of masculinity

Joy, in all its potential interpretations and misinterpretations, doesn’t seem like a very masculine virtue. Perhaps it is because Joy is a common woman’s name; or perhaps it is because the word “joy” in and of itself evokes images of butterflies, rainbows, flowers, and things that are egregiously yellow; or perhaps it is because most books asserting what it means to “be a real man” tackle topics such as honor, wildness, integrity, suffering, humility, and sacrifice (and yes, I did just go through the table of contents of one such book) yet leave joy mysteriously unsung. Whatever the reason, it seems—to paint with a broad brush (though painting with a broad brush is certainly superior to finger painting when a broad brush is all you have)—most men, and particularly men in the church, would likely not be characterized by joy. Words such as angry, disgruntled, cynical, or petulant might better suit us. Yes, this includes me.

But before we continue, I must include a word or two regarding the nature of joy. You may have heard it before, but joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is an emotion that is usually quite fleeting and is easily affected by circumstances; conversely, joy is a state of being that transcends circumstances and can be present in times of sadness, anxiety, and even anger. Joy is rather like the sun which affects the goings on down on Earth but is not reciprocally affected by the goings on down on Earth. Does this sound like the state of men you know or the men at your church?

So how did we as men get this way? I can’t say for sure. It’s certainly not, for my purposes here, a biblical precept. If you consider Pauline authority, joy is a command that is nowhere near gender-specific: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) “Rejoice always.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) James presents joy as a central figure in a passage that, for all intents and purposes, has a rather virile tone: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4) Again, nothing in this passage suggests that estrogen is a requisite catalyst in the production of joy.

But the greatest indictment of joyless men is found in Nehemiah 8:10: “Then [Nehemiah] said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’” Now we find the quintessential masculine virtue: strength. And from whence, says Nehemiah, does that strength come from? Joy; specifically, joy that comes from God.

For those of you wondering, Nehemiah was not some pipsqueak who declared that joy was the source of strength to compensate for his lack of muscle, chest hair, or fighting ability. In the fifth century BCE, Nehemiah led the Jewish people in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in just fifty-two days, a feat which was completely remarkable. But not only did Nehemiah lead these men in rebuilding the walls in an astonishing amount of time, he also had to lead them in fighting off enemies who constantly assailed them during this time. Nehemiah was forced to split his men into two groups: one group to rebuild the walls, and the other to defend them from their enemies. Even some of those who built the walls “labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other.” (Nehemiah 4:17) It would be difficult to argue that Nehemiah and his fellow laborers were anything other than supremely masculine, and yet what does Nehemiah remind them is their strength? Not the mighty strike of their swords, nor their fervent faithfulness in the face of fierce hostility, but the joy of the Lord, the very thing that quite a few Christian men today seem to lack the most.

So, it seems to me, joy is not only a very good thing to have, nor something we are merely commanded to have, but a rather manly thing to have as well. The problem with joy, however, is that it requires us to rely on something that cannot be attained through our own doing, and that, I think, is something with which a lot of self-made American men are not comfortable. Finding joy in the Lord requires vulnerability, which is just about the last thing myself and many other men desire for ourselves. And yet, that is where strength can be found.

Seems backward? Well, what else should we expect when it comes to the way God works? I must admit, joy still doesn’t seem all that manly to me, though I suppose the way I perceive things is among the least important determinants of truth. It’s exceedingly difficult, as I could be described as somewhat of a curmudgeon, but I am striving to pursue joy. Those who remain unconvinced may consider what I’ve posited to be further feminization of the church or whatever hogwash terminology you wish to use, but, to quote a somewhat obscure song, “I’d rather be called weak than die thinking I was strong.”

the rise and fall of Darth Vader, a redemption story

A few weeks ago, I watched all six of the live action Star Wars films (that had been released on DVD, of course) with a friend who had never seen them before. The best part was that I took a day of paid time off from work and we watched all six in one day. Now, I’ve been watching Star Wars since I was old enough to quit taking afternoon naps, but never in my life before that day had I watched all six in one sitting.

It had been awhile since the last time I had watched the prequel trilogy (episodes one through three) for obvious reasons I won’t take the time to go into here. Episodes one and two were what they were, but I was particularly struck by episode three. For some reason, even though I had seen this film countless times before, I was affected by it in a new, stomach-churning way.

Episode three, entitled Revenge of the Sith, is easily the most tragic installment in the series, as hero Anakin Skywalker turns to the dark side, spearheads an unprovoked slaughter of the Jedi Order, and aids in the dissolution of galactic liberty and the accession of an oppressive, xenophobic regime. The impetus for such unconscionable behavior is complex, and to a point disturbingly understandable, yet truly heartbreaking (if you’re willing to overlook the fact that Star Wars is completely fictional). Obi-wan Kenobi, Anakin’s master and father figure, sums up the anguish of the situation as he stares down at his former friend, who has been physically disfigured by his fateful duel with Obi-wan and spiritually twisted by the tentacles of evil. “You were the chosen one!” Obi-wan mourns. “It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them. Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness.”

To which Anakin (or as he is then known, Darth Vader) responds in an inhuman shriek, “I hate you!”

“You were my brother, Anakin,” Obi-wan continues. “I love you.” And then, Obi-wan leaves, seeing Anakin’s body catch fire and believing his dear friend’s death to be inevitable. Of course, Anakin does not die. Instead, he is rebuilt into a horrific cyborg who terrorizes the galaxy on behalf of his new master, the Emperor, Darth Sidious.

Now, we all knew that Anakin would become Darth Vader. And yet, there’s this horrible feeling that comes from watching Anakin’s descent into darkness. Even after seeing this movie many times, I was devastated by it anew. Perhaps it was because I had matured quite a bit since the last time I had seen it and could more fully understand the weight of Anakin’s decisions. Or perhaps it was because I came to the chilling realization that I could actually empathize with Anakin. After all, Anakin’s turn to the dark side wasn’t immediate or wholly intentional; it was a slow, gradual trajectory of bad decisions guided by deception and manipulation.

The order in which we watched the movies was such that we watched episode six, Return of the Jedi, immediately following episode three. Return of the Jedi has always been my favorite chapter in the Star Wars saga because it is when good finally triumphs over evil. Spurred by the unconditional love and faith of his son Luke, Darth Vader renounces the sale of his soul to evil, sacrifices himself to destroy the Emperor, and succumbs to redemption moments before his death. Later, while celebrating the Rebellion’s victory, Luke sees the diaphanous specters of his former teachers who have passed on into death in the Force—Obi-wan and Yoda. Moments later, another form appears. It is the unmasked figure of Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker.

In the original version of the film, Anakin is portrayed by Sebastian Shaw, who represents Anakin at the age he was when he died (albeit with all of his original limbs intact and the scars that come from burning alive erased). When the special edition of the film was released, viewers were surprised to find that Shaw had been replaced by Hayden Christensen, who had portrayed Anakin in the prequel trilogy. For years, I was upset and nearly offended by Christensen’s presence in Return of the Jedi. That is, until I watched all six movies in one day.

Hayden Christensen represents who Anakin Skywalker was before he was destroyed and remade into Darth Vader, “the good man” as Obi-wan describes him. Only Luke doesn’t believe that “the good man” that was Anakin Skywalker was destroyed completely. As he explains to Darth Vader in a palpably tense verbal confrontation, “[Anakin Skywalker] is the name of your true self. You’ve only forgotten. I know there is good in you. The Emperor hasn’t driven it from you fully.” As it turns out, Luke is right about his father. There was good in him, and it only took one decision for him to be redeemed.

That’s why I have come to appreciate the interpolation of Christensen into the luminous role of Anakin in Return of the Jedi. Christensen’s appearance, frankly, evokes a more visceral response than does Shaw’s, because we have developed a more emotional connection to Christensen as Anakin. Whatever your views on Christensen’s performance in the prequel trilogies (and people have many), I believe he rightly represents the full circle of Anakin’s redemption.

I love redemption stories in general, and Anakin’s redemption story in particular. I don’t believe in lost causes or bad apples. I don’t believe that there’s anyone so far gone that they can’t be brought back. And Star Wars—to use verbiage that would otherwise make me gag—is a beautiful depiction of such a belief. When you watch the last hour or so of episode three, Anakin—or rather, Darth Vader by that point—would seem to have found himself too deeply entrenched in the sway of the dark side to have any hope. That conviction only grows stronger as you watch episodes four and five, as well as the first half of episode six.  For all intents and purposes, Darth Vader is evil incarnate. Until he isn’t.

The story of Anakin Skywalker revolves around the truth that there is always hope. After all, if Darth Vader could be redeemed, then who couldn’t? Anakin’s hands (organic or otherwise) had committed such abhorrent deeds and yet, in the end, he uses what is left of them to save his son and destroy his puppet master. “You were right about me,” Anakin tells Luke, just before he dies.

As difficult and idealistic as it may seem in the real word, I want to be like Luke. I want to have hope for those seem hopeless and believe in those who seem too lost to be found. In the midst of unyielding darkness, I want to be a beacon of light that refuses to give up on lost causes. If Darth Vader could be redeemed, why can’t they?

a habit most natural, scriptural, manly, and beneficial

The weird thing about growing a beard is that people make a point to inform me that I’m doing it, as if the product of the process isn’t extruding from my face. “You grew a beard!” one hyper-observant woman once explained to me. “Your beard is getting very long,” say others, often on a daily basis. Random strangers frequently approach me to comment on my beard, a few even with the gumption to ask if they can touch it (which, if you’re wondering, no, you may not). A vociferous number are on the warpath to get me to shave it all off, though I suppose this is because they are the ones who have to actually see the beard.

I did go clean-shaven for a few months in 2015, long enough to know that I won’t be doing that again for years. With my baby face and abiding acne, I was mistaken for a high school kid one too many times for me to take up the razor again soon. I am a grownup, after all, and I would really like to be perceived as such.

But there’s more to growing a beard than simply the practical reason that it makes me look my age, and the fact that it’s far more convenient than shaving every day. Growing a beard, for me at least, is this esoteric self-realization that I am a man. This is not to say that those who are unable or disinclined to grow a beard aren’t real men, but rather that when I see my beard in the mirror or stroke it thoughtfully I know that I have made it to the point I’ve always wanted to be. I’m not a boy anymore, with all the limitations that come along with childhood. I am a man, with all the capacity for doing good, noble, and worthwhile things. My beard is an external manifestation of what I hope are my gestating internal qualities.

Plus, let’s face it, aside from all the mysticism, beards are awesome. Not only does my beard consistently provide my nervous fingers something to fidget with, but it’s an instant rapport-builder with all sorts of people. I’m really not that cool or interesting of a person, but my beard has a way of suppressing the drabness of my personality. And if growing a beard was good enough for so many great men of history, then it must be good enough for me.

As the great smokin’-and-drinkin’ theologian Charles Spurgeon once said, growing a beard is “a habit most natural, scriptural, manly, and beneficial.” So for those of you wondering, I’m not shaving for awhile yet.