Feb  2018 27
Boys to Men

The poet Robert Bly claimed that traditional cultures subject boys to a harrowing ritual, a strenuous rite of passage, when it is time to move from the social status of a boy to being a man. The rituals are designed to scare the hell out of the boys because, asserted Bly, boys need to have the hell scared out of them.

In the absence of such rituals, societies create alternative rites of passage which are not as effective in teaching a boy the responsibilities of manhood and which may, in fact, keep boys acting as boys, doing what men should do but irresponsibly.

In many cultures in the U.S., we lack rituals for boys to become mature men. We focus far too little on making the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood.

Accepting adult responsibilities such as driving a car, using alcohol, and sexual relations are too often examples of boys being boys. Some men never grow up. Too many men never grow up.

Then there is the gun. In many and profound ways, guns have been incorporated into masculinity. Guns extend one’s power, command respect, invoke fear and, therefore, control. The noble desire to defend what is right and those one loves, to develop one’s warrior energies, is distorted and corrupted by guns.

As it is the case that persons of color can’t teach white people how to be better partners in creating better relationships, women can’t teach men how to be better partners in creating better relationships. White people need to do their own work. Men need to do their own work.

In the wake of school shootings, with the shootings at a congressional softball game and a small-town church in view, and with the hundreds of deaths and woundings each week in the U.S. from firearms—the great majority of incidents with a man’s finger on the trigger—we in religious communities should be reflecting on how we help men do the work of becoming men.

Three thoughts come to mind. I encourage you to look up at least one of the following readings or videos. All are short and profound. Each helps us reimagine what it means to be a man.

Fred Rogers. A couple of weeks ago, the media noted the 50th anniversary of the first episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister whose deeply gentle persona also included a fierce ability to defend what he thought was right.

Brené Brown. Dr. Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston. I devour each of her books because of how much I resonate with her perspectives on vulnerability, shame, and courage. She very recently was a guest on Krista Tippett’s show, On Being. The full transcript of the interview is here.

In the wake of mass disasters, such as caused by hurricane flooding and mass shootings, Brown says this: “(T)he connection between people — you can’t sever it, but you can forget it. So to find moments of collective joy and pain and to lean into those, with strangers, reminds us of that something bigger.”

Her perspective, that we can forget our connections to each other but not sever them, and the spiritual point of view that undergirds that perspective, is one we who live in religious communities desperately need to hear, heed, and teach. How do we raise boys to be men with strong backs (courage), soft fronts (vulnerability), and wild hearts (the ability to stand apart from the herd, when necessary)?

Andy Griffith. Sometimes a TV show transcends its own culture while deeply expressing something from its own culture. Kenya Barris’s show black-ish frequently shows how to go deep and transcend.

There is a culture-transcending episode from The Andy Griffith show I heard Ron Howard (Opie) reflect about during an interview. In that episode, Opie took a slingshot and accidentally shot a momma bird. This scene followed.

In a measured voice, Andy deals with Opie by teaching him to accept the consequences of his actions. Without anger and by teaching Opie to accept the consequences of his action, Andy teaches what a man should be and do. The scene moves me to tears every time I watch it.

Boys need help becoming men. That is the work of parents and extended families, absolutely. It is also the work of religious communities and schools. Some communities of men (e.g., African-American, see one example in Chicago) tend to work more on this subject than other communities (e.g., white).

But, if we want to minimize all that fuels the toxic masculinity embodied by boys (of whatever chronological age) with guns, we all—but especially those of us who identify as male—need to attend to the critical work of helping boys become men.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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