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Non-Toxic Masculinity

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Member Reviews

Wagner makes some really great points in this book. There were highlights on my Kindle, vigorously shaking my head yes while reading, maybe even throwing out an audible AMEN!

What was so disheartening was sometimes not even a paragraph later, the author would say something that either walks back what he says, try to soften what he says, or claim that "my perspective isn't the only one." I don't know what to do with that. I am all for humility, but I think it highlights different problems in this book, the biggest being - the author doesn't know who is audience is. He says it's not a book for women, but sometimes it reads like it is. I also think he spends a lot of time making a very careful plea to exangelicals (people who have left the church), but sometimes it feels like he undermines his entire exhortation trying to embrace multiple viewpoints. I appreciate his pastoral care (it comes through the text), and I appreciate the way he highlights how scripture gives value to both genders - male and female. He loses me, though, when the authority with which he proclaims those truths is not carried over into the authority for our praxis day to day.

The church is called to love extravagantly. No argument. And we cannot ignore the problems that purity culture in the church has created (something I think he highlighted well). I just felt like this was a very unsure book. It would make a good book to spark discussion between friends, but I'm not sure that I would give it to a man I was discipling (especially a man coming out of ungodly, unhealthy patterns of sexuality or what Wagner terms toxic masculinity).

More discussion about healthy masculinity need to happen. I'm glad the author is using his voice to talk about it. I just can't recommend this one as it is now.

I received an advanced copy from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.
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Criticizing false visions of masculinity is easy, but building a theologically rich alternative vision is hard. This book attempts to do just that. There are plenty of critiques of "purity culture," popular culture, and wrong theology in the church, but the book is far more than that. Over and over I found myself drawn to this book because he gives a positive vision of what male sexuality is.

His primary critique of the overly sexed view of men is that it dehumanizes both them and women. It reduces us to nothing but sex monsters and the goal of manhood is control. Instead, he shows that male sexuality is a beautiful good. It is rare to read a Christian book about sex that will not leave you stuck in shame. It makes much of Jesus and what God actually created us for.

The book is written with a deconstructing or even non-Christian audience in mind. It is not only for them but their voices and concerns are taken seriously. That may throw off some who want clear answers on each topic, or for him to come down harder on certain understandings of sexuality. The book clearly holds to a traditional sexual ethic, but it does so gently.

This is one of the best books on male sexuality I have ever read. It is a joyous gift and I hope that men who have endured the heavy burdens of legalism and dehumanizing books will read this one and be free.
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Some one had to say it, and I"m so glad Zachary did. This book is not based on Christian 'values' but on what everything should be based on - biblical truth. It actually questions Christian values that have plagued my generation, namely, Purity Culture. I read this book so fast simply because I thought the questions asked were needed. And I do what to make a distinction. This book is not a 'deconstruction' book where the bible is questioned. It is based on the Bible and acknowledges the Bible's authority. In doing so first and foremost, the reader is easily able to see how concepts from Purity Culture have created apart from the bible.
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Finally, a book about how purity culture harms men, written by a man. Zachary Wagner writes with the heart of a pastor and the empathy of a fellow survivor of purity culture. Through his personal story, interviews, and cultural commentary, Wagner makes a powerful argument for how purity culture dehumanizes men. He also shares a renewed vision of male sexuality and how this sexuality develops through the lifespan. I will wholeheartedly recommend this book not just to men looking to rebuild a healthier sexuality, but to women who want to understand the men in their lives and how the effects of toxic masculinity hurt both of them.
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A book that holds valuable answers towards better, holier masculinity. Wagner identifies the core teachings of purity culture and refutes each one all while addressing the terrible consequences of dehumanization. Wagner discusses how masculinity needs to be re-humanized so that both men and women can be treated as they ought, as image bearers of God. 

There are certain areas that I wish there were more clear and practical answers on, and there are some areas that I wish would have been said with more conviction. There will be points of disagreement, but the insight is worth sifting.
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This is a really constructive addition to the conversation. While pointing out how culturally relative definitions of masculinity have created a toxic environment of male entitlement, Wagner points us back to Jesus. In a subculture built on "purity" that can be lost and brings shame, Wagner reminds us that we are dead apart from Christ and Christ brings life—not shame. I especially appreciated Wagner's humility about the things he is not sure on or that others disagree with him on.

DISCLAIMER: I received an early copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair review.
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Over the past couple years, plenty of folks have thinking and writing about "purity culture," that Evangelical movement of the nineties and early aughts that encouraged teenagers to resist the sexualized culture, keep it in their pants, and wait until marriage. That was perhaps the kernel of the movement, but it went far further than that to insist that courtship was the only godly way to gain a mate (over and against dating) as well as to adopt a view of human sexuality that idolized virginity and shamed anything short of that.

Reactions to purity culture have been mixed. While many have distanced themselves from it, even to the point of renouncing their faith and embracing everything they had once fled from, others have sought a way forward that holds onto the concept of sex being reserved for marriage while nonetheless healing from some of the extra trappings associated with the movement. Zachary Wagner, the editorial director for the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT), represents this latter direction with his new book, Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality.

I greatly respect the work Wagner does at CPT, and I think this book mirrors the gentle, pastoral persona he exudes on the CPT podcast. There's a lot to commend about it, but one nitpick I have to get out of the way right now is the title. I understand that it cleverly capitalizes on the well-known phrase, "toxic masculinity," but masculinity is (far) more than just sexuality and the book is for the most part only about male sexuality. In the book he argues that men are more than just their sexual desires, yet ironically the title inadvertently works against this theme. 

Anyway, the book, such as it is, does a admirable job of first walking through purity culture and its more problematic aspects and then building up a better understanding of male sexuality that sees it as a genuinely good thing that nonetheless needs to be stewarded well. The last section of the book is the most interesting (at least to me) because he takes the time to walk through the phases of sexual development from boyhood through adolescence to dating, marriage, fatherhood, death, and resurrection.

Wagner's key contention with purity culture is that it dehumanizes people, both men and women, by reducing men to rapacious sex machines that must be fed and by reducing women to nothing more than potential stumbling blocks to men's holiness. The goal of purity culture was itself to recover healthy sexuality in the face of a hyper-sexualized culture, but ironically it too made far too much of sex such that teenagers often felt that the most important fact about themselves was their virginity.

The problem that he sees with the purity/impurity binary is a) how black and white it is, b) how it elevates sexual sins above all others, and c) how it fails to make space for the fact that human beings mature over time. For example, one of the main questions teenage couples would ask in youth groups was, "How far is too far?" wondering if kissing was okay before you were married or if it would send you directly to hell. Pastors and parents tended to not do much to disabuse teens of this notion, telling horror stories about unintended pregnancies intended to scare teens into purity. 

But is this the way that we think through sin in any other context? If a child tells a lie, for example, we see it as a sin but we see it specifically as stemming from immaturity, something that children are to be trained out of. Wagner believes that the sexual urges teenagers feel are both good and natural, and so when they make decisions to look at porn or do whatever else, we can treat it the same way. We can recognize it as sin, but we can recognize it as a kind of sin specifically resulting from immaturity and an inexperience with stewarding a newly-noticed sexuality. Rather than sternly condemning and shaming kids, we can speak seriously and yet graciously about ways they can practice self-control and love of neighbor. One of my favorite quotes from the book was this:

 Boyish curiosity is not evil. It is a good, God-given impulse that can drive us to understand and discover the beauty in the world. But curiosity can end in dark places. There’s no perfect innocence in a broken world.

This strikes me as a loving, compassionate, and yet truthful way to communicate to little boys that the curiosity that drives them to look at porn is, in many ways, quite understandable! And yet pornography capitalizes on that curiosity in dark ways that dehumanize both the viewer and the actors, who are many times abused and trafficked and caught in systems they can't escape. But it's a way of talking to a young boy that doesn't make him feel like he's fundamentally broken and evil.

Wagner holds a traditional view of sexual ethics in common with purity culture, yet he also recognizes the ways in which that kind of teaching tends to assume all people feel heterosexual temptation. And when it did try to acknowledge the existence of LGBT individuals, its answer was ineffectual "solutions" like reparative therapy or "praying the gay away" that tended to make things even worse for those individuals. Instead, Wagner argues, there's a way to lovingly listen and acknowledge and walk through our varied experiences together in the bonds of friendship. 

The last part of the book is about how even though purity culture teens were often promised a reward of endless sex with a "smoking hot wife" if only they would save sex for marriage, the reality is that marital sex is often far more challenging, confusing, and painful than that airbrushed vision. He shares candidly from his own experience of how the trauma of sexual abuse and bad teaching made sex difficult and even impossible in many seasons of his marriage. 

Instead, he wants to redirect that vision to acknowledge that while sex can be a delightful bonding experience, the ultimate biological end of male sexuality is fatherhood. He says this in light of the contentions of many abortion rights activists who point out that women often bear the brunt of parenthood while men can fairly easily ignore the consequences of their "consequence-free" sex. "The solution," he says, "is to reassociate male sexuality with fatherhood." He doesn't mean that every man must father biological children to be "truly a man" or anything like that, but just simply that in the highs and lows of experiencing our sexuality, it's important to remember the biological purpose of why we're even built like this. Recognizing that even Jesus himself never fathered any child, Wagner argues that any man can embody fatherhood because "Fatherhood is the male half of the cultural mandate."

Wagner wants to create space for men to act in paternal ways toward the world without actually being paternalistic. "The vocation of paternal masculinity, rightly defined, cannot and should not be reserved only for heterosexual married men." But that raises the fairly obvious question of what he could possibly mean, then. He answers:

   So, how can men move through the world in a way that honors the masculine vocation of fatherhood? They can care for animals, coach a sports team, or build homes with precision and care out of concern for the people who will live in them. There are men who cultivate and plan landscaping projects, and those who are longtime employees and train new hires with care and attentiveness. Think about the man who teaches a second-grade classroom, and those who guide others on their life’s journey with music. What about the man who waits tables in a restaurant, patiently attending to the dietary restrictions of his guests? Or the man who paints the church lobby? Think about the man who arranges flowers for weddings, events, and public art displays. And the man who prepares a meal in a shelter for the homeless. What about the man who taught Galilean peasants about their heavenly Father and rebuked his disciples, saying, “Let the little children come to me”?

He's very clearly going to great lengths here to envision a masculinity that is inclusive of the many different men who exist in this world, and that's a great instinct—truly. And I agree with him that the vocation of "fatherhood" is something that can be fulfilled in various different ways besides literal biological fathering of children. I'm on board with him in seeing "coaching a sports team," "training new hires," or "teaching a second-grade classroom" as exercising a certain kind of fathering muscle. Those are relationships of someone older and wiser compassionately shepherding someone along in life. But I have to say, in his zeal to cast a wide net here, he begins to stretch the word far beyond any kind of meaningful sense. Painting a church lobby is paternal? What is being fathered there—the wall? Arranging flowers for an event is some kind of fatherhood? How? If a woman arranges the flowers, is she exercising a kind of spiritual fatherhood? I agree that those are good things a person could do, that a man could do, and that they would be faithful ways of fulfilling the cultural mandate, but I have a hard time understanding the paternal connection he sees there. 

I'm not convinced that fatherhood is "the male half of the cultural mandate," as if the cultural mandate splits neatly or meaningfully into gendered halves. It seems to me like we could just acknowledge that some men are biological fathers, some are adoptive fathers, some aren't fathers at all, there are some ways in which we can "spiritually" father other human beings through life, but that not being a father doesn't make a man any less of a man. Fatherhood is a personal relationship that in its natural sense is age-differentiated. A man may find himself as a father figure in a certain situation, and he may simply not be in a different situation, and both situations can be fine and good.

All that said, I do think he's right to reconnect male sexuality to fatherhood. Sex is a creational act that results in a relationship to a new life, a relationship that is both similar to and quite distinct from a maternal relationship. Though these relationships have their own unique qualities, a father has just as much responsibility toward that new life as the mother does. It is abhorrent when men feel like they can impregnate a woman and then run off without any kind of obligation.

Overall, Non-Toxic Masculinity is, I think, a good response to purity culture. Though the title isn't very representative of the book's content, the content itself is thoughtful, gracious, and interacts well both with those who are more conservative than him as well as those who are more progressive than him. In the end, Wagner wants to chart a course that is both compassionate towards the wounds caused by poor teaching while also being forthright about his theological convictions regarding a masculinity that takes embodied male advantage and channels it for the good of others. My nitpicks aside, he holds forth a male sexuality that is both inherently a good thing while also holding forth a gospel of abundant mercy for the broken. That is a beautiful thing.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.
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I started off really optimistic about Wagner's book. It has blurbs from people that I hold in high regard. For example; Jesus and John Wayne may be one of my picks for the most important popular theological text of the past few years. The introduction and first few chapters supported this optimistic feeling. They were really strong and I was intrigued to see what else the author brought to the table. Unfortunately, as I read the rest of the book, I found myself disappointed that a lot of the book's takes weren't groundbreaking and were instead seemingly just faint spins on what has been talked about lots of people since 2017 and the start of the #MeToo movement. Also this isn't really a book about Toxic Masculinity. It's a book about sexuality and concepts like the male gaze/porn/etc. This wouldn't be a problem normally but the book is called "Non-Toxic Masculinity" and there is a lot more to discussions of toxic masculinity than just sex. Toxic masculinity encompasses things like how men take space from women and inflict harm in a multitude of ways that aren't just sexual. For the most part, these are ignored by Wagner. Instead this book seemed to be just another critique of porn and maybe, at its best, a book that teaches the evangelical male readers in its audience about enthusiastic consent. Don't get me wrong, that's significant and I think a very needed conversation but there's more to toxic masculinity than that. Wagner is a good writer and he did do interesting research but ultimately this book feels like it should probably have a different title than Non-Toxic Masculinity.
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