The world gaped in awe at the story of the four Americans, aided by a Brit and a Frenchman, who singlehandedly, without weapons, prevented a mass shooting on a French train a couple weeks back. I just wrote about this Jason Bourne-like episode for The Stream. It is a story you need to read. It will lift your spirits as it did mine.
Writing this essay reminded me of the duty we have to train boys to take risks and lead in self-sacrifice for the good of others. This is a distinctly Christian idea, one filtered down through the teaching of the Old Testament and especially the image of Jesus Christ, who ascended a Roman cross to purify his bride (Eph. 5:22-33). It is an idea that has had a major impact on the West, as men historically have recognized that if a war must be fought, it is theirs to fight. Women and children should not be thrust into combat. They should be protected. This is what men do. This is what men have done for millennia.
But what about today? Recently, men on a train in Washington, D. C. failed to act as a crazed man stabbed a victim 40 times. They cowered in terror. Let’s be clear: if a would-be killer entered our area, we would fear for our lives, too. But please note what I said for The Stream:
You see, traditional manhood fears death, but it fears something even worse: being a coward. For a man, the only thing worse than a bullet in the kidney, or a box-cutter across the throat, is the failure to act. To act self-sacrificially on behalf of women and children is the epitome of virtuous manhood. It reflects, in fact, the apex of Christian doctrine: a Savior-husband giving his life to save a bride, the church.
How can we help boys understand this? How can we encourage them to embrace virtue and, in a fearful moment, act, as the Americans in Paris did? Let me give four quick thoughts.
1. Dads can be unapologetically masculine. Fathers need to be plugged in with their children. If they’re never around, or disengaged, boys won’t learn what it means to be a man. Fathers need to be present, and they need to be men. There’s nothing fancy about this. It’s not complicated. Every man will have his own interests; no two men are the same. But according to biblical categories, men should be men. They should dress like men, talk like men, and carry themselves like a man. For more on what this looks like and how the Bible shapes men, see the brand-new book Designed for Joy, with a stirring foreword from John Piper.
2. Dads can demonstrate courage. If there is a crazy person in the parking lot outside the apartment complex, fathers need to be the ones who go outside. If there is a scary situation at the shopping mall, dads need to act to get their family to safety. If a neighborhood child bullies the father’s child, the father needs to appropriately confront and handle the matter. Fathers are made for courage; men are made for action. Consider David’s words to Solomon as David’s life ebbed: Be strong, and show yourself a man (1 Kings 2:2). A secular, feminist age despises this cisgender exhortation, but Christians love it. Men hear in it a summons to full manhood; women hear in it the foundations of the kind of character that will treasure and bless them, not target and use them.
Fathers should also tell their sons great and spectacular stories of courage under fire. My recent book on Chuck Colson is one such attempt.
3. The church can encourage physicality. Not every boy can be a J. J. Watt-like display of power and fury. Not every man likes fishing or hunting or deadlifting. But in general, the church should not seek to stamp out the instinct for play and physical activity that boys have (and need). Boys should be encouraged to play, to be adventuresome, and to compete in healthy ways. There is not one narrowly-subscribed way for boys to be physical; there are in truth a thousand different ways for boys to give vent to their testosterone-fueled flights of fancy.
Boys have on average 1000% more testosterone than women. It’s all well and good to be gender-neutral in the classroom, but I dare you to try to defy the natural force of testosterone when you have an actual boy and not a bunch of cool ideas from a fancy textbook.
4. The church can hold high the example of Jesus. Jesus was a man. He took on fearsome odds in coming to earth and rescuing his people. Contra the ultra-spiritual model of his life, where he floated six inches off the ground and never so much as ripped a tissue in half, Jesus’ ministry to fulfill the very will of his Father involved hard, physical challenges. He fasted; he was a carpenter; he frequently had little rest and many demands; he paid for the sins of the wicked by dying in absolute, undiluted physical agony. Jesus was not exaggeratedly masculine, but neither was he anything less than masculine.
If churches will recover this aspect of Jesus’ life, they will help men to see that he is not a fairy tale. He does no violence to the God-created nature of manhood. Instead, he redeems manhood, and channels to ends that glorify the Father. Men find in him the example they desperately want. They discover a warrior-savior who is so manly that he feels no insecurity over weeping over the death of his friend (John 11:35). They find their own understanding of manhood challenged, stretched, corrected, and galactically enhanced in the person of Christ.
The stakes are high when it comes to our boys. What we communicate to them about manhood will definitively shape them, as I said for The Stream:
Teach a boy that he is an idiot, that he can only ever ascend to Fantasy Football champion, that he cannot ever measure up to his sisters, that he is at base an animal, and watch in wonder as he fulfills all your worst predictions.
But teach him that he has immense dignity and worth, that he was made — whatever his chest size, whatever his height — to spend himself for the good of others, and you will form the kind of young men who do not cower when a terrorist stands up, sweating and fevered, to fulfill Allah’s will by mowing down innocents. This kind of young man wakes up from his nap, sees bloodshed on the horizon, and moves with a swiftness he has trained for to sacrifice himself for others. He may die, he knows. But he will die with honor.
This article originally appears on Owen’s website, Thought Life.