“Where have all the good men gone?” is a question often asked, particularly in the context of the church. Maybe it’s one of those questions that is present in every generation. Or maybe it’s a question that is particularly poignant now, in our historic moment. Due to a Wall Street Journal article I was forwarded last week, I’ve been thinking about that question again.
The article describes the major demographic event affecting American men. “Today,” author Kay Hymowitz explains, “most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance.” Elsewhere I’ve heard this limbo termed ‘adultolescence’—the extended stage between adolescence and adulthood. It is explained sociologically by the growth of our knowledge economy which requires longer (and more expensive) education, an extended period of early career-building, and a societal blending of one’s identity with one’s work. These factors make young people (and men especially) less able or willing to achieve some traditional social developments (financial independence, living independently, and perhaps most notably, marriage).
Hymowitz (among others) also points out the ways that women have recently surpassed men in several measures of maturation and achievement. Women are earning more college degrees. They hold higher GPAs. They seem to evidence greater confidence and drive. They have become the first sex. (For another take on this topic, see my blog entry from October.)
From Dependence to Dominion
A helpful voice in thinking about the apparent dearth of good men and about the issue of maturation in general is Mardi Keyes. She wrote an article called Who Invented Adolescence? which is focused on traditional definitions of adolescence (ending at around age 20) but which bears on adultolescence as well. Keyes explains that the Bible views the path to adulthood as a movement from dependency to dominion. These Biblical terms speak into the existing reality of many young men: extended dependency and postponed independence.
It is entirely appropriate and even desirable that parents (particularly) and society (generally) help our young people move from dependent relationships in the world to relationship where they are actors exercising creative dominion. But often societal forces only serve to reinforce and enable protracted dependency and to stunt active and independent stewarding. A notable example is the stories (in the form of television shows and movies) that depict manhood. These stories often reinforce juvenile and sophomoric male behavior.
The Church offers Another Story. The Story of the Christian gospel subverts other stories by describing a need for profound (and ongoing) dependence alongside a call to radical (and ongoing) dominion. Christians need to speak into the lives of young men (and young women) the narrative of Jesus Christ—the ultimately and fully Good Man—on whom everyone depends. And with equal conviction Christians need to speak the narrative of service to that Good Man and to the world, so that young men (and young women) will find purpose in doing the hard work of ordering and ruling God’s world.
And equal in importance to the Church telling the story of authentic manhood and womanhood, the Church must embody that story, so that it can be seen and copied by young people. As Jamie Smith puts it, "Being human takes practice." Young men and young women need to practice being human within the community of the church, where they feel safe to step out independently and where they are given opportunities to exercise dominion over God's world.