Manly saints (part 1)

Last evening I was privileged to give a talk on manhood at The King’s College in the city; it was a delightful time of fellowship with the men of the House of Churchill. My topic was “Manly Saints in an Infantile World”; I’ll be putting up the essay in installments.

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The Challenge of an Infantile World

I wish to begin this evening with the absurdly understated observation that the average young male in 21st century North America is not a promising specimen, intellectually, morally, culturally, or spiritually. Your kind, gentle listeners, has become the subject of an expanding body of research that tries by turns to figure out what on earth is up with you and how to exploit what’s up with you for commercial profit. To cite but a single example, consider Kay Hymowitz’s article in the City Journal in the winter of 2008, provocatively titled, “Child-Man in the Promised Land.” She begins thus:

It’s 1965 and you’re a 26-year-old white guy. You have a factory job, or maybe you work for an insurance broker. Either way, you’re married, probably have been for a few years now; you met your wife in high school, where she was in your sister’s class. You’ve already got one kid, with another on the way. For now, you’re renting an apartment in your parents’ two-family house, but you’re saving up for a three-bedroom ranch house in the next town. Yup, you’re an adult!

Now meet the twenty-first-century you, also 26. You’ve finished college and work in a cubicle in a large Chicago financial-services firm. You live in an apartment with a few single guy friends. In your spare time, you play basketball with your buddies, download the latest indie songs from iTunes, have some fun with the Xbox 360, take a leisurely shower, massage some product into your hair and face – and then it’s off to bars and parties, where you meet, and often bed, girls of widely varied hues and sizes. They come from everywhere: California, Tokyo, Alaska, Australia. Wife? Kids? House? Are you kidding?

Not so long ago, the average mid-twentysomething had achieved most of adulthood’s milestones – high school degree, financial independence, marriage, and children. These days, he lingers – happily – in a new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. Decades in unfolding, this limbo may not seem like news to many, but in fact it is to the early twenty-first century what adolescence was to the early twentieth: a momentous sociological development of profound economic and cultural import. Some call this new period “emerging adulthood,” others “extended adolescence”; David Brooks recently took a stab with the “Odyssey Years,” a “decade of wandering.”

These are not the most depressing paragraphs in Hymowitz’s article, but they suffice to illustrate that you are now living somewhere in the midstream of a cultural transmogrification of young males from rising future leaders to “child-men” of the South Park variety whose chief end – à la Peter Pan – is never, ever, ever to grow up. Your peers prefer a life of video games: “Men between the ages of 18 and 34 are now the biggest gamers,” Hymowitz reports, and in 2006 nearly 50% of American males in that age bracket used a console for approximately three hours day – more than the average 12- to 17-year old!

Of course, beyond the call of mindless entertainment lie the other two preoccupations of the contemporary youthful male: copious beer and cheap sex, or preferably some ample combination of the two. One thinks here of the exploits of Tucker Max, and more need not be said.

It is my assumption this evening that you are gathered here because you aspire to be something more than what Hymowitz and others have described; that your chief aim in life is not to be superficial, indolent, and passionless – her words, trying to capture the image of today’s single young male. But to know what we do not wish to be is not yet, of course, to know exactly what we ought to be, what we ought to strive toward; nor does it clearly identify for us the path that will lead through the surrounding inanity to something better, richer, and nobler. It is to these more positive, constructive questions that I would like to devote our few minutes together this evening, and may the Lord our God give us light.

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