The bad boy culture is alive and well. We see it in real life: prominent men who sexually harass women and get away with it; home grown terrorists who blow up buildings; shooters and mass murderers who kill with impunity. We see it on the silver screen: anti-heroes abound, armed with superpowers, deadly weapons and ill intent. Sometimes the heroes that take them down are almost indistinguishable from the anti-heroes.
I used to think: “What is wrong with those men?” Thinking of my grounded, compassionate, spiritual husband, I would breathe a sigh of relief: “Boy, am I glad I got a good one.” Implied in my thought process was that, like an invisible cancer, something was mysteriously wrong with those particular individuals.
Turns out it’s not that simple. We may all play a role in creating the bad boy culture. And, like any culture we’ve had a part in making, we can have a hand in re-making it, too. That’s especially true for the church.
What’s at the root of the bad boy culture? Niobe Way, a developmental psychologist at New York University, believes that the problem is the way boys are raised. She writes about it in her book, Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.
“We essentially raise boys in a culture that asks them to disconnect from their core humanity,” Way said in a recent radio interview, “which is their desire for relationships and all sorts of things the boys articulate that they want.” She goes on to say that the larger culture reinforces that disconnect by looking askance at boys that are too emotional and relational. We give them the message that they are not real men.
Our societal expectations then lead to a culture “that accepts lonely and aggressive boys, and ultimately puts them in positions of power.” These lonely and aggressive boys not only commit sexual assault, but all kinds of violence. Most telling was this insight of hers: “We look at mass violence and we’re all writing articles about mass violence. Then we have a rapist and we’re all writing articles about rape. The we have an article about police violence and we’re focused on police violence, without understanding there’s a common root across these problems. If you raise boys to go against their nature, some of them will grow up and act crazy.”
So, what are we to do about these boys who grow up and act crazy? In the church, there is much we can do. We are an intergenerational intersection of spirituality and morality, belief and meaning. We regularly interpret both ancient wisdom and contemporary culture in order to derive enduring meaning. Ours is a perfect location to address and re-make the kind of culture we raise boys, and girls, in.
Here are some things we in the church can do.
- Turn up the volume. Right now, we are in the phase of naming and seeing the bad boy culture. So, turn up the volume. If girls and women, (as well as boys and men) have been violated, encourage them to give voice to their experiences. It takes courage, strength, and self-respect to speak truth to power in the bad boy culture. Especially if the males in question are in positions of personal or professional power.
- Involve men proactively. Women are often victims of the bad boy culture. But men have a large say in it. So, involve men proactively. Challenge men to call each other out. It’s one thing for women to say what happened to them. It’s another thing altogether for men to say no to male behavior that threatens the common good. Men, draw attention to it before it escalates.
- Befriend lonely and aggressive boys. Men especially, take these guys under your wing, reach out to them, and help them find a place of meaning in the larger society. In my community, there is a popular program run by a local church called Pop in the Shop where older men mentor at risk youth in the art of car repair.
- Re-interpret God gone rogue. Look afresh at passages from the Bible that seem to reinforce or uphold a bad boy culture. Bring a new interpretive lens to texts like these, especially when they relate to God going rogue: God deciding to drown all of creation in a flood, or wiping out the Tower of Babel, or condoning killing off other tribes, or proclaiming exile on his people. Be sure to distinguish the historical and religious context of the story, instead of preaching as if ancient societal norms and ours were exactly the same. The same goes for dealing with apocalyptic passages in the New Testament. Remember your hermeneutics classes, as well as the ins and outs of historical, literary and textual criticism. Not sure how? Consult modern and post-modern commentaries for help with this.
There are no easy answers here. But Niobe Way’s insights can point us in a direction worth exploring.
The conversation about who and what women can be has changed dramatically over the years. For the better. We have so many options about how we work, play, love, marry, live and lead. We can be stay at home moms, or president of the United States. We can sit on the Supreme Court bench or preach from the pulpit. We can marry or be single, we can have kids or not, we can work or not. We can even choose to be sex objects if we like.
The time has come to expand the conversation for boys and men. It’s time to open up new options for friendship and relatedness, for caring and connection, for meaning and masculinity. And we can do it without shaming or looking askance at boys who choose non-traditional ways of expressing their masculinity.
After all, Jesus had 12 close male friends. He didn’t go it alone. Our boys shouldn’t have to either.