Review: The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes By Nancy Pearcy

The content of Nancy Pearcy’s The Toxic War on Masculinity is as thought-provoking as the title of the book itself. The fact that I had to train myself to stop saying, “The War on Toxic Masculinity” proves Pearcy’s point—whether a person agrees with the word association or not, the secular script has successfully wedded masculinity to toxicity in our public discourse. In the same way that it is nearly impossible for you not to think “jelly” when I say, “peanut butter and . . .” so is it impossible not to supply “masculinity” when someone uses the word “toxic.” Like it or not, we are going to be talking about toxic masculinity for the indefinite future. Pearcy, though, pushes back against this negative association and argues that those warring against masculinity are the source of the real toxicity. Like Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, The Toxic War tackles a contemporary issue by taking the reader back to its beginning. For Trueman, the roots of the transgender movement ran much deeper than the sexual revolution of the 1960s; he saw the materials for the transgender movement in the expressive individualism of men like Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Freud. For Pearcy, the idea of toxic masculinity is not the product of third, second, or even first wave feminism, but the industrial revolution. What it meant to be a man changed dramatically after men were called to work outside of the home, independently of their wives and children. Pearcy’s book is a refreshing examination of what true masculinity is, how it came to be under fire, and how Christians can champion a positive view of masculinity even as the world continues to wage its toxic war.

The book divides into three uneven sections. The first three chapters compare prevailing attitudes toward masculinity with what statistical research actually shows, and turn to Scripture to dismantle the misguided notion that biblical masculinity means that men are permitted to dominate women. Neither Scripture nor the overwhelming majority of Christian marriages substantiate the claim that Christianity is responsible for toxic expressions of masculinity. The second section, “How the Secular Script Turned Toxic,” spends nine chapters explaining how society came to see masculinity as toxic, how women responded to negative male behavior, and how men pushed back on the efforts of women to civilize them. It is also in this section (chapters eleven and twelve) that Pearcy shows the toll that the toxic war has taken on men, fathers especially, and how to promote healthier relationships between the father and the family. The third section, “When Christian Men Absorb the Secular Script,” speaks to the damaging effects of Christian men (so-called) turning to the unbelieving culture’s definition of “Real Manhood” (e.g. self-assertion, domination, indulging in fleshly appetites) and smuggling these into their marriages under the guise of Christianity. The final chapter, “A Cure for Marital Cancer,” will be especially helpful to the reader in identifying marital abuse and helping the victimized to recover, whether that means the marriage is preserved or not.

In Part 1, Pearcy introduces a brilliant illustration to help the reader disentangle masculinity from toxicity. Using male aggression and power as an example, Pearcy points to the American Physiological Association and how it lays violent crime, like mass shootings, at the feet of men because they are men. This is unfair. Pearcy writes, “But they overlook the controlled power and aggression used by the heroic men who have stopped mass shooters. Masculine traits are not intrinsically toxic; they are good when directed to virtuous ends. In a fallen world, the application of coercive force is sometimes necessary to defend the innocent” (18). Quoting Mark Batterson, Pearcy continues, “‘The image of God is our original software, sin is the virus.’ The challenge is to sort out which definitions of manhood are part of the original software and which are the virus. Which belong to God’s original design and which are products of sin?” (18). As a husband, father, and pastor, I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to read a book on masculinity that does not start by taking all men behind the woodshed and bloodying their already bloodied noses. Lots of books, even by professing Christians, treat masculinity as though it were the virus and not like software that has been corrupted by the fall. Honoring and encouraging her brothers in Christ earns Pearcy instant trust and appreciation—and we are still in chapter one.

The next chapter, “Progressive Patriarchs” pushes back against the prevailing lie that Christianity is the source of toxic masculinity and female misery. Devout Christian men—meaning men who attend corporate worship at least three times a week—actually shatter these negative stereotypes. “They are more loving to their wives and more emotionally engaged with their children than any other group in America. They are the least likely to divorce, and they have the lowest levels of domestic abuse and violence” (36). Furthermore, according to secular news outlets like the New York Times, “It turns out that the happiest of all wives in America are religious conservatives…Fully 73 percent of wives who hold conservative gender values and attend religious services regularly with their husbands have high-quality marriages ” (39).

This prompts the question: Why do so many demographic studies show that divorce rates among Christians are comparable to those of non-Christians? Pearcy points to the inclusion of those who are only nominally Christian; these skew the otherwise encouraging outlook on Christian marriage. “They (nominal Christians) spend less time with their children, either in discipline or in shared activities. Their wives report significantly lower levels of happiness. And their marriages are far less stable. Whereas active evangelical men are 35 percent less likely to divorce than secular men, nominals are 20 percent more likely to divorce than secular men. Finally, the real stunner: Whereas committed churchgoing couples report the lowest rate of violence of any group (2.8 percent), nominals report the highest rate of any group (7.2 percent)—even higher than secular couples” (37). The big takeaway from this chapter is that Christianity itself is not to blame for toxic masculinity; it is due to those who defend their abusive behavior using Christianity to justify it. Pearcy circles back to this same group in the final section of the book, but for now, the reader is introduced to a significant problem within the visible church. There are indeed, as the hymn says, “those that hate her and false sons in her pale,” but overall, the Christian church in America has reason to be encouraged.

In chapter three, “The Paradox of Christian Marriage,” Pearcy argues that Christianity’s view on marriage is not repressive but actually honors women, giving them a greater voice in marriage than is widely believed. I agree wholeheartedly with her conclusion—Christian wives are not passive spectators, but rather contribute a great deal to their marriages—but I disagree with the exegesis she uses to arrive at this conclusion. This, to my mind, is the only weakness of the book.

Pearcy notes in an earlier chapter how studies show that “in practice, there seems to be little difference whether a marriage is complementarian or egalitarian” in terms of marital happiness (39). My hesitation is not with the findings of these sociological studies, I expect that they are correct, but with the way that Pearcy defines complementarianism (which she claims to maintain herself). As I read her explanation of concepts like submission (61) and headship (54), and her exegesis of passages like Ephesians 5:22–24 (60), I found myself thinking that her perspective sounds more egalitarian than complementarian. For instance, Pearcy quotes Robert S. Paul, vice president of the Focus on the Family Marriage Institute: “Many Bible scholars suggest that the head-body metaphor in Ephesians 5:23 does not show a power hierarchy but rather the inseparable union of husband and wife” (54). Elsewhere, citing Early Church Fathers, Pearcy argues that the language of the husband being the “head” of his wife does not connote a sense of authority but means only that he is the “source of his family’s spiritual life” (57).

To be sure, God has assigned husbands with the responsibility to train up their children in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6) and to sanctify their wives, “by the washing of water with the word” (Eph 5:26). This responsibility, however, does not negate the fact that God has entrusted husbands with authority in their homes, and that Scripture commands wives to submit οr “be subject” to their husbands (Col. 3:18–19, Titus 2:5, 1 Pet. 3:1­–6). That the repeated command of Ephesians 5:22 and 24a (“Wives, submit (υποτασσω) to your own husbands, as to the Lord. . . . Now as the church submits (υποτασσω) to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands”) is grounded in the image of the husband as “the head (κεφαλη) of the wife even as Christ is the head (κεφαλη) of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (v.23) indicates that the idea of authority cannot be altogether divorced from the meaning of “head.” In the same epistle Paul writes, “And he (the Father) put all things under (υποτασσω) his feet and gave him as head (κεφαλη) over all things to the church.” (Eph 1:22). Paul uses the same image of Christ as head together with the same verb (“put all things under” υποτασσω) and the same object (the church, ἐκκλησία) in Ephesians 1 that he will use in Ephesians 5. It would seem difficult to explain how κεφαλη and the related verb, υποτασσω, clearly speak to a relationship of authority and submission in Ephesians 1 but the same κεφαλη and υποτασσω do not describe a relationship of authority and submission in Ephesians 5. Is it true that Jesus Christ is the source of the spiritual life to his church? Yes. But does he not also have authority as the head of the church? He certainly does. Being the source does not preclude being an authority.

Even while I disagree with Pearcy’s exegesis above, I wholeheartedly agree that husbands ought not to use the ideas of headship and submission as a trump card to selfishly impose their wills upon their wives and children. Communication, listening, and dying to self are essential to good decision making and responsible leadership in the home. Husbands are not above the need to reason and persuade; they should be able to demonstrate to their wives that the decisions they are making are in the best interest of the entire family. If they cannot do so, then something is probably wrong. Whenever I sit with couples for pre-marital counseling, I am in the habit of saying, “Whenever a tough decision needs to be made, nine times out of ten the two of you should be of the same mind. This means that you are communicating well and that you are becoming more unified as a couple. That is the goal. If you never seem to agree, then either someone is being selfish or you need to improve your communication skills.” Pearcy and I land in the same place, marriage should be a partnership and not a dictatorship, though we have different ways of getting there.

Part 2 of the book, “How the Secular Script Turned Toxic” is hard to put down; chapter after chapter provides keen insights as to why the secular script on masculinity has so soured. The overarching argument of the section is that the Industrial Revolution (beginning in 1750) had a net negative effect on men and was the seedbed for what would become “toxic masculinity.” In the Colonial era and before, men were considered “priests of their households” (75). Books on spiritual instruction were mostly addressed to men, which speaks to the assumption that men were home to provide the instruction. Vocationally, men were partners alongside their wives in the household industry (74). There was not a hard divide between men’s work (working outside the home) and women’s work (working inside the home) as many typically think. Men during this time were seen as patriarchs of the community, as contributors to the common good, and protectors of the vulnerable among them (76). All of this changed, however, once men were called out of their households to labor in factories (chapter 5). This created a “private values vs. public facts” divide (95) that excused negative behaviors in the workplace so long as they were for the sake of professional advancement only. The problem was that these negative behaviors did not stay in the factories but were brought home with the men. Consequently, women began to see themselves as the civilizers of their aggressive, sensuous, and immoral husbands (chapters 6–7), which contributed to the cult of domesticity. Men, in response to feminine attempts to reclaim them, doubled down on those negative traits and read them into the definition of masculinity (chapters 8–10).

Pearcy notes that organizations like the YMCA and the Boy Scouts were formed in reaction to what men felt were attempts to “sissify” them. Pearcy also notes how masculinity came to be defined not as the assumption of duty, but the abdication of it. Her pointing to Western cinema and books like The Call of the Wild support her argument that where masculinity once meant responsibility to the community, now it meant a retreat from civil responsibility and a rediscovery of one’s animal instinct. Pearcy closes out this section pointing to examples of men who have successfully pushed back against this secular script of masculinity and have chosen, albeit in costly ways, to reconnect with their families and to reclaim a masculinity that looks more akin to the “Pioneers and Puritans” of chapter 4.  Space does not allow me to quote everything that I appreciated in this second section. Even as she surveys several hundred years of Western history, Pearcy has a storytelling ability that keeps the reader interested and eager to turn to the next page. Pearcy’s point is well defended in this section and, in taking us to the past, it gives us a model and hope for the future of men in the West.

The final section of the book sheds light on the damaging effect that the secular script has when it has been baptized by those who claim to be Christian. Chapter 13 argues that men hold tremendous sway in preserving their marriages and advances reasons why men struggle to have healthy relationships with their wives. Pearcy does not let men off the hook, but she does acknowledge that some male struggles are born out of a “father wound” that has not been dealt with (245). Closing the chapter with a reminder of the fatherhood of God gives hope to those men who are looking to change but do not know how. Chapter 14, the final chapter, offers a cure for marital cancer. The image of cancer is meant to illustrate that abuse in marriage is no small thing, and so it requires no small remedy. One insight from this chapter stood out to me as particularly helpful: “The fallacy in couples counseling is that it assumes both spouses are mutually at fault and that the main goal is to salvage the marriage. On the one hand, it is commendable that Christians take seriously and aspire to avoid divorce. But, on the other hand, when one partner is involved in serious sin, like infidelity, or addiction, or violence, the focus should not be on reconciling the couple. It should be on stopping the sin” (252). Pearcy strikes a perfect balance here. Christians should value marriage, we should look to avoid divorce wherever possible. But, in cases when sin has become so heinous that it becomes impossible for the offended party to remain in the marriage without risking their own lives, then Christians ought not to consider divorce an easy-out or a quick fix—it is, in some cases, the only way to stop the sin. Sanctification should always be the ultimate goal.

The Toxic War on Masculinity is a well-argued, well-written, and well-timed book on a topic of tremendous significance to the church. I would heartily recommend it to any who are looking to understand what true masculinity is and how to avoid its cleverly disguised and toxic counterfeit.

© Stephen Spinnenweber. All Rights Reserved.


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Posted by Stephen Spinnenweber | Thursday, October 26, 2023 | Categorized in Church History, Exegetical Theology, Reviews. Stephen Spinnenweber. Bookmark the permalink.

About Stephen Spinnenweber

Stephen Spinnenweber is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA). He was born and raised in Pasadena, MD and was educated at the University of Maryland and and Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Together with a local campus minister, he cohosts The Shorter Podcast, a podcast on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Stephen and his wife Sarah have been married since 2013. They are proud parents to Reid (3), Ruthie (1), and recently welcomed their third child, Wesley. Meet all the Heidelberg contributors»