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The repellant piety of “brokenness”

Most men will respond to a call to duty, not to self-pitying victimhood

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The repellant piety of “brokenness”
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“If you want to reach men, appeal to their sense of duty, not their brokenness.”

I did not anticipate the response I would get when I posted that on social media, but it must have struck a nerve.

What prompted it is my distaste for “brokenness,” a term now in vogue that subtly shifts emphasis from personal responsibility to victimhood when it comes to the doctrine of sin.

Evangelicals have always been pragmatists of a sort, quick to surf the waves of culture whether we realize we’re doing so or not. Recently, “being a good person” no longer means conforming to objective standards but instead means identifying with the oppressed. And since people tend to respond to incentives, there’s been a crowd rush to fill the category of victimhood—as victimhood is a better path to the high ground of righteousness than merely being an “ally” of the oppressed. Youth pastors, and college ministers—ever quick to catch the wave—now encourage their charges to think of themselves as broken, and I dare say, to name their brokenness loudly, and repeatedly.

Leaving doctrinal integrity off the table for the moment and sticking to pragmatism, I don’t think this will ever appeal to most men. Something about it is essentially out of sync with manhood.

Now, I have a confession to make: I am an essentialist. I believe there are essential differences between creatures—human beings and animals, for instance. And even though things like cheering for the Boston Red Sox or speaking English can be attributed to culture and history, other things cannot be, things such as the existence of the sexes, as in male and female.

The reason I believe this is because I believe in Creation with a capital C. Since there is a Creator behind creation, creatures come front-loaded with meaning.

(I know this makes me anathema to the idolaters of anomie, but c’est la vie! That’s life in the 21st century.)

Leon J. Podles, author of The Church Impotent, has noted that something about Western Christianity fails to connect with men, and it has been that way for a long, long time. (He traces it back to the 14th century.) It’s not religion as such that misses the mark. He notes Eastern Orthodoxy doesn’t have this problem. And who could credibly claim Orthodox Judaism or Islam suffer from this?

I doubt that calls to name your brokenness will ever appeal broadly to men. Deep down we know better.

Podles is Roman Catholic, and I’m an evangelical—but both Catholicism and Protestantism have the same problem. I’m not going to dive into the bridal mysticism that he pins the blame on. While it might be the taproot of the problem, it is so far removed from the daily experience of most evangelicals, I’d have to use the rest of my space here just to explain it. Instead, I think it is fair to say that evangelicalism has been under the baleful influence of a toxic mix of pietism and modern thought—a dab of Hume, a smattering of Rousseau—but especially Romanticism and its emphasis on all things natural and spontaneous, at least since Cane Ridge in 1801. (The timing is right; that was the beginning of the camp meeting movement and revivalism.) At least since then, we’ve been quick to use emotional tugs to pull people into a “personal relationship with Jesus.” For most of us, this is the very essence of piety; anything less isn’t spiritual. And today we’ve added a little self-pitying victimhood to the toxic mix.

Considering the low regard many men have for evangelical piety, it might come as a surprise to learn that in the first century, the personification of piety for Romans was the Trojan hero, Aeneas. If you don’t recall, he is the hero of the Aeneid, the mythic story of the founding of Rome, written by Virgil, and commissioned by Caesar Augustus himself.

Throughout the story, he is referred to as “Pious Aeneas.” This has puzzled modern readers because we tend to think of piety as a spiritual thing—that is to say, an emotional and inward thing. Just how can this be squared with a man who fought his way out of a burning city carrying his father on his back, while holding onto his son with one hand and a sword in the other? It can’t be.

For people in the first century, piety was active, social, and honorable. It wasn’t passive, inward, and pitiful. Piety acknowledged its debts and paid them. For Romans a pious man performed his duties, come what may.

I doubt that calls to name your brokenness will ever appeal broadly to men. Deep down we know better. We know that manhood is a calling, and we owe our Creator a debt of gratitude for this, as well as many other things. This—built on a foundation of faith, repentance, and putting to death sin—is the essence of piety, and this is what men need to hear.

C.R. Wiley

C.R. Wiley is a pastor and writer living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of The Household and the War for the Cosmos and In the House of Tom Bombadil.

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