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Beards, bourbon, the “new” masculinity

Meet the lumbersexual in his natural habitat: In a bar of some great metropolis, he sits on an unfinished wood bench underneath an Edison light bulb, sipping at his bourbon or craft beer or ironic moonshine, body draped in plaid, feet shod with leather, face covered by an outrageous yet immaculately styled beard.

He’s tattooed and beautifully muscled. He eats ethically, and donates to all the right causes. He owns an axe, but never uses it. He works at a startup or a think tank or in the public sector, a consummate white-collar type, but he is plotting his next outdoor excursion. It will be epic. Just the sort of adventure a real man would plan.

This is the stereotypical urban dude of 2014-15, a strange mix of the lumberjack and the hipster. In case you missed it, peruse the Urban Dictionary, where lumbersexuals gained an entry after a feverish spate of articles categorizing this new male.

If you don’t believe me, just Google the word, and find yourself treated to site after site filled with images like this one:



Or this one:


Lumbersexuals have community pages on Facebook and a personal dating site. Buzzfeed was gracious enough to tell us 13 reasons women should be dating these hairy specimens. The greatest reason?

Indeed, looking into his eyes is like looking into the soul of a warrior prince from a bygon [sic] age.

(Too much GoT or Vikings, methinks. “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”)

Remember: this new beast is only the latest urban man. The late 1990s and early 2000s were filled with “the metrosexual”: stylish, clean-shaven, occasionally androgynous, with a penchant for luxury. Next, “the übersexual” of the mid-2000s, a more masculine, socially aware prototype, George Clooney rather than Justin Timberlake. As Marian Salzman described it, the übersexual was fashion forward but marked by

a masculinity that combines the best of traditional manliness (strength, honour, character) with positive traits traditionally associated with females (nurturance, communicativeness, co-operation).

Behold the man.

But we’ve moved on to a new fascination with the old markers of masculinity: beards, rough-looking clothing, outdoor activities, smelly alcohol. We all woke up and decided to adopt the fashion of 19th-century Russian soldiers or some mix of Don Draper and the Wolverine.

When they’ve bothered to think about it, commentators have been pretty unanimous in ascribing each of these trends to “masculinity in crisis.” Traditional masculine roles have been disappearing, devalued, rendered suspect. The man, in crisis, flails about for a new identity “in a form of rebellion against stolen masculinity,” and he expresses himself in the only way an affluent late-modern (probably white) Westerner knows how: through acquiring new habits, literature, clothes, accessories, leisure activities, and specialty food and drink.

The theory, of course, tries to explain a whole range of disparate phenomena: from sites like Return of Kings to the more benign (but not unproblematic) The Art of Manliness, from Breaking Bad to Mad Men, from an avocation of microbrewing, butchery, or woodworking to a preoccupation with wet shaving.

What to say of this trend? (I’ll get to theology in a moment.)

The lumbersexual is an ideal type that few would match perfectly. Yes, a lot of us seem to have beards nowadays (and plaid and bourbon have made some kind of comeback), but I’m not sure we’re all tattooed, muscled, and coiffured enough to really fit the image, with a set of unused power tools and mystifying outdoor gear. Nor would most identify with the term lumbersexual. This was true of the metrosexual and the übersexual as well. They were types to be imposed, not identities willingly embraced.

The “masculinity in crisis” theory has some limited usefulness; at the very least, a few men today think our culture devalues men and masculinity. But is this concern new? As Willa Brown pointed out in The Atlantic, a similar identity crisis (also wrapped up in lumberjack habits and attire) was evident at the beginning of the 20th century. And concern over authenticity and masculinity fills American literature. Have men been “in crisis” for a couple of centuries? If so, it’s not a crisis; it’s an ingrained cultural habit of querying masculinity in a changing world, throwing up alternative after alternative, but never finding satisfying solutions.

The present cultural moment is also rather complicated, as Marcie Bianco noted at Mic, and I’m personally drawn to a theory of confluence to explain the lumbersexual trend and other forms of new masculinity. It is:

  1. Heterosexual men reflecting back aspects of LGBT culture. Today’s lumbersexual looks a bit like yesterday’s “bear,” as some have observed, perhaps with a few added tricks from male-identifying trans folk. It’s a parodic, self-conscious performance of masculinity that some engage in wholeheartedly, others less so.
  2. The effect of “biblical manhood” or “complementarity” movements in evangelicalism, affecting a new generation of men. Many no longer identify as evangelical but have some vague sense that they ought to be especially masculine.
  3. Partly, men choosing to emulate specific bits of pop culture: Gladiator and The 300 coming home to roost, rather than Fight Club or The Matrix.
  4. Then and only then, a new phase of “masculinity in crisis.”

So, is there a theological response worth making at this point? Probably a few, actually.

Put simply, if men really are “in crisis,” they’re not going to fix anything with a new wardrobe, a different set of alcoholic beverages, and a pretense at having manual labor bodies. Shallow throwbacks to a bygone age just won’t cut it. As Steve Holmes put it in a recent post, all our images of “maleness” (and “femaleness”) are at best a shadow of the real thing, which we have barely glimpsed in a world of warped images and fallen beauty.

Your waxed moustache doesn’t make you a man. Your muscles don’t make you a man. Your hilarious, expensive beverages don’t make you a man. No, your clothes really don’t make you a man.

So what does?

The Church Fathers often express a sense of the fine line between the traditional “signs” of masculinity and the renewed humanity we know in Christ. Clement, Augustine, Jerome, Isidore, Bede, and many others all note the beard especially as this sign. But they also note its weakness. Jerome hit on this point in one of his typically sharp comments:

If the beard seems to have some kind of manliness, it is cut off by the man of the Church, that it might be shown to be effeminate and frail. (Commentary on Isaiah 6.15.37)

A beard may be shorn or left to grow; it is no sign of strength, but another shifting shadow. The indicators of masculinity tell nothing certain about the character of the person who has them. They are but faint reflections, not unimportant or immaterial, but also not stable. At the same time, however, they may have the ability to point to reality when properly understood.

Augustine explores this point in his Ennarrationes in Psalmos 133, originally a sermon delivered to a group of monks.

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity.
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore. (Psalm 133)

What is the oil running down “on the beard“? Augustine notes:

The beard signifies strength; the beard signifies youthfulness, vigor, energy, speed. Therefore when we describe men of such character we say: “He is a bearded man.”

But Augustine is not satisfied with this simplistic account of masculinity. Rather, the ecclesiastical “bearded men” were those who fought off the temptations of the world, suffered persecutions, gave up their property, conquered by love, and dwelt together in unity. Oil ran into the beard when the Holy Spirit fell upon the early disciples, clothing them in power from on high.

Manhood is not proved by the performance of rigid gender stereotypes — behold the twelve Apostles competing in drink, beard growth, and traditional woodworking! — but through the exercise of virtue. He is a man who strives “to attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to the perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

So far, so good, but some could grow nervous at this point. Whither the distinctiveness of masculinity or maleness at all, then? What about the traditional roles of the father, the husband? What about the obvious differences of sex? If manhood is to be defined by reference to virtue, then are not all the virtuous “manly”?

It’s true that what I have articulated is akin to an increasingly common argument in progressive theological circles, where sexed difference is held to be ephemeral. They wish to abandon the signs, even those inscribed in our flesh, in pursuit of reality. The beard and much else may be shorn. Is this not Jerome’s point? But such a perspective errs in taking things a step too far and even in misunderstanding the Fathers.

If we seek the signs of masculinity in themselves, we are indeed chasing a shadow and are to be pitied. We are preferring the fading beauty of the creature to the glory of the eternal God. We are making the family an idol, fatherhood an idol, masculinity an idol. But if we use the shadow to chase the one casting his outline in it (indeed, in us), then the shadow is useful, even salutary. In which case, the sign may not be abandoned or undone; we cannot seek to undo what we are.

I am not therefore commending the abandonment of certain traditional roles, forms, or patterns of masculinity in this exploration. Their reappearance is to be expected. They were not writ into the fabric of nature and human society without reason. God “created them male and female.” And though what passes as male and female in this fallen world is only a faint whisper of those original words, we cannot be free of such shadows in this age, nor of human distinction in general. We will see and embody them more fully and truly, not less, in the age to come.

What I am commending, though, is a turn from the self-regard of the coiffured lumbersexual — oiling his beard, slaving away in the gym, tossing back small-batch bourbon — towards a perspective that moves ever out of oneself. The beard, along with many other things, may be a sign of manhood, but it is a manhood that is feeble without the support of virtue and without realizing what it is a sign of. And, without a turn towards the truth of which it is the faint image, it will prove to be no manhood at all.

Zachary Guiliano’s other posts may be found here.

The featured image is “Kyle, Barn” (2015) by Ashley Jordon Gordan. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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