David Brooks has a new article out this week on the "haphazard self." In the piece, he highlights a number of economic and cultural trends related to working-class men in the United States that are both important and disconcerting. Brooks cites research from an academic study conducted from 2000-2013 in which 107 working-class men sat down for detailed interviews about their occupations, families, and spiritual lives. The common denominator among these findings is detachment.
In the article, Brooks engages the alarming trends revealed within the study, namely that working-class men today are intentionally seeking to limit their obligations as parents, romantic partners, employees, and religious adherents. More and more, men today are seeking to live, what the study characterizes as, unattached and autonomous lives. But this is more than an interesting data point. The fact that men in the United States are self-consciously opting to remain unattached to the basic institutions of our society is a perilous trend. And the implications of this behavior are vast and dire.
Each of the men interviewed for the study were fathers, but in most cases the production of offspring was accidental rather than intentional. And though the men often expressed a desire for involvement in the lives of their children, most were reluctant to formally commit to their romantic partner, sought to delay a future marriage, or, if married, expressed some measure of regret regarding marital obligations. Even with respect to their children, the researchers concluded these men more often thought of themselves as "helpers" rather than "providers."
Similarly, the men interviewed for the study eschewed a traditional approach to employment. Instead of committing to a job suitable to their skills and credentials, many sought to avoid the "monotony and limited autonomy" afforded by working-class jobs, either through a combination of side-jobs to cover expenses or by striking out as entrepreneurs. Most, however, experienced little success and were forced to return to wage jobs.
A similar pattern held true for religious involvement. While most respondents attested to the significant role faith plays in a person's life, few displayed any meaningful attachment to a religious community. Many described themselves as spiritual but not religious. Others characterized their church attendance as occasional, or even frequent but noncommittal. But according to the researchers, religious faith was mostly a non-factor in shaping their identities or constraining their behavior.
Attachment and masculinity
In all three areas, the study revealed a stunning reluctance to assume the obligations that are traditionally associated with these basic social structures. Instead of accepting these responsibilities as a part of adulthood, the study showed a concerted effort to redefine each role in order to preserve autonomy.
This shirking of responsibility creates two major issues. The first is that these institutions are foundational for our society. Both the economy and our culture more broadly depend on them—in different ways—to function properly. Prolonged refusal on the part of men to enter the labor market and raise stable families ultimately spells disaster for society. And this leads to a second problem, which is that these attachments are indispensable for moral formation. Men are supposed to be committed to work, family, and church. But that isn't just conventional wisdom; it’s the wisdom of God revealed in the Scriptures.
Instead of running from these obligations, the Bible gives specific instruction for men to take responsibility in each one of these areas. As a first principle, a man's life is foremost to be grounded in his relationship with his creator. Proverbs 9:10 says that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." From his fear of the Lord, a man will seek to understand God's pattern and design for manhood, and to faithfully embody those things.
The Bible does not shy away from the language of masculinity (1 Cor. 16:13; Eph. 4:13). Instead, the Scriptures make clear that masculinity is a distinct and worthy calling. Standing in stark contrast to the trends revealed in the study, the overarching biblical principle related to masculinity is that men are called to take responsibility. It is no accident that the Bible applies this principle of taking responsibility to a man's duty in the areas of work, family, and religion. Even more, it makes perfect sense that men living in a fallen world would buck against God's intent.
When it comes to these institutions, the Bible is clear that men bear a unique responsibility for each one. As a husband and father, a man is called not only to lead his wife (Eph. 5:25-33; 1 Pet. 3:7), but to take responsibility for his children as well (Eph. 6:4). Regardless of their inclination, men are called to bear the burdens of leading their homes and instructing their children in the way of the Lord. For the good of his family, a man is to manifest the kind of humble, sacrificial leadership Jesus modeled in both his words and deeds. And while his wife is both a suitable and irreplaceable partner, he retains the obligations to exercise spiritual and physical leadership, protection, and provision (1 Tim. 5:8).
The same is true of his obligations to work. Every man is called to provide and produce (Gen. 1:28; 1 Tim. 5:8), and eschewing these responsibilities is to rebel against God's design. This doesn't necessarily mean that a husband will always earn a larger paycheck than his spouse, but every man is created to work and has a duty to commit himself to productively using his time and resources in order to care for himself and his family.
Finally, this is surely the case with regard to a man's religious practice. The call of Christ on every person is: “follow me.” For husbands and fathers, this call is not one to private spirituality or even individual obedience, but for the discipleship and spiritual oversight of his wife and children. In addition, the church is the visible family of God on earth, and every man is called to be a faithful member of Christ's body. Too often God’s church because men neglect these responsibilities, leaving women to shoulder these burdens in addition to the service God has specified for women.
Though not every portion of the study spelled bad news, the findings mentioned here are definitely cause for concern. America is a facing a crisis of masculinity, and it is clear that the problem is driven by sin. Manhood is a worthy calling, but its demands are difficult to meet and often involve deep sacrifice. Those things are true by design, so it is little wonder that many would seek to escape such a challenging calling. But like Jesus, God calls men meet this challenge by leading and taking responsibility in ways that require placing the welfare of others ahead of their own.
Brooks is correct that "the autonomous life is not the best life." But the truth goes even deeper. A man’s desire to avoid attachment and shun the obligations that are inherent to things like work, faith, and family can be traced all the way back to the garden. Adam hid, avoided responsibility, and was content to allow his wife to face the consequences he deserved.
In many ways, these current trends are simply an extension of Adam’s sin. True masculinity is found, though, in the person of Jesus—the second Adam. And it is by looking to him that men can learn to embrace the call to manhood that God has set before them. While it might seem desirable to escape these burdens, it is only in embracing them that men can experience the fullness of God’s design.