Non-Toxic Masculinity (Ep. 86)
Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality, with Zachary Wagner
The problem of toxic masculinity is much bigger than contemporary expressions of Christianity. Mistreatment of women and men dehumanizing others is a feature of human culture fraught with sin. But the church is called to be salt and light, so how can we foster a non-toxic masculinity?
Our guest today is Zachary Wagner, who is a writer, researcher, and minister. He serves as the editorial director for the Center for Pastor Theologians. We’re talking about his Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality.
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[00:00:15] Geoff: The problem of toxic masculinity is much bigger than the contemporary expressions of Christianity in the West mainstream, or rather the mistreatment of women and the dehumanization of men and others is a feature of All human cultures fraught with sin, but of course the church is called to be salt and light.
So how can we foster a non-toxic masculinity? This is the Embodied Faith Podcast with Geoff and Cyd Holsclaw, where we are exploring a neuroscience-informed spiritual formation produced as always by Grassroots Christianity, which is growing faith for every day. Today we have a guest, uh, Zach, Zachary, uh, Wagner.
I always get confused when I come across a Wagner because I always want to be like German and be like, is it Wagner? But I know like we're all
[00:01:02] Zach Wagner: Wagner. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[00:01:03] Geoff: Wagner, right? So
[00:01:05] Zach Wagner: Sh Wagner. Yeah,
[00:01:08] Geoff: yeah, there we go. So Zach Wagner is a writer, researcher, and a minister. He serves as the editorial director for the Center for Pastor Theologians.
And we're talking today about his new book, Non Toxic Masculinity, Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality. Thanks for being on with us today.
[00:01:27] Zach Wagner: Yeah, delighted to
[00:01:28] Geoff: So why don't we, uh, just jump in with. Uh, what is toxic masculinity? We always got to start with definitions. A lot of people have different things. This is a real thing. It's not a real thing. We talk about it too much. We don't talk about it enough. What is toxic masculinity?
[00:01:44] Zach Wagner: Yeah, there's, I think, a lot of different ways you could define it, and, of course, you can go Oxford English Dictionary on it, and you'll find some sort of definition. Having to do with the cultural values or behaviors or, uh, stereotypes associated with masculinity. Uh, that either encourage or result in men being macho or overly aggressive or emotionally repressed or violent or any of the bad things, um, you might associate with. extreme expressions of quote unquote masculinity is kind of, it really just kind of means bad masculinity in the common, in the common parlance, which, uh, of course raises all sorts of other questions. Um, I, in my book, take a little bit more of a theological, anthropological spin to defining the term. And what I say is toxic masculinity is a way of living out masculinity that dehumanizes self and or dehumanizes others.
Part of what I'm doing there is I'm taking a, a theology of sin and, uh, theological anthropology, uh, that understands sin as a type of dehumanization. You are falling short, is a language we often associate with sin, of, uh, your own calling as a human being created in the image of God, or failing to treat, Think or, uh, have a disposition towards others that treats them as fully human created in the image of God.
Um, and, uh, the other thing I'll say about the definition is that I am playing on that idea of toxic, which we might have associations with. Poison, or sickness, or illness, or something that can even kill you. Um, and, uh, that's kind of the connection that I'm making with dehumanization. A toxic masculinity is a subhuman masculinity.
Um, so I'll stop, that's how I define it broadly. Um,
[00:03:56] Geoff: well, so I like the word toxic that you zero in on and people use that all the time and it, and it could mean two things, right? So some things are just naturally poisonous. If you take them, they are toxic, uh, and they will do detriment, uh, kind of in at any level if you ingest them or take, you know, like radiation or whatever.
Right. Well, actually radiation might not be one. Um, but, um. And so I think on some, so if we go outside of, um, just like the Christian circle, cause you're talking about theological anthropology, which I'm a huge fan of, of course we are on the show like this, what embodied faith is, is how does it, how does becoming human also become theological, right?
So, but outside of that, sometimes, um, it kind of in the more progressive or further left discourse or thoughts of these things. Any kind of masculinity is kind of de facto deemed to be toxic. Any kind of expression of particular male embodiment can be, or is seen to be toxic. So we don't have to go down that road, but I just want to kind of put a pin on that.
Um, but I think the road or the, the, the view we're in is something like, well, too much of something could be toxic, whereas. The right amounts is actually could be healthy to you or something like now, of course, I'm not a nutritionist. I, you know, Sid probably has like 10 examples of what toxic things, um, too much of the dose.
I, so I don't have anything practice it. Do you have a, what is toxic if you take too much of it, but it's good for you if you, you know.
[00:05:24] Cyd: Well, I mean, even just really simply, if you drink way too much water, that can be toxic because then it messes with your sodium levels. So, you know, even anything that's really good for you inherently too much of or abused, of course becomes
[00:05:38] Geoff: you have too much vitamin B, I mean, your pee turns a little orange, right? Anyhow, so, so we're, we're, we're in that kind of, uh, arena. I would assume that we don't buy on, by definition, we don't think masculine. Embodiment is bad, um, or inherently evil, uh, right. Yeah, certainly not.
[00:05:59] Zach Wagner: Certainly not. That would not, that would not be, that would not be a Christian, in my view, that would not be a Christian view
[00:06:06] Geoff: Well, I just wanted to say that because I know we have listeners from all different spectrums who are listening, you know, and these words of these things, you know, can become very contentious. And so I just want to say, you know,
[00:06:18] Cyd: I was almost going to ask you to define what you mean by what it means to be human, but I was like, Oh, that's a rabbit trail.
[00:06:23] Geoff: that's a very long.
[00:06:24] Cyd: for a very long time, but you just kept using dehumanizing what it means to, you know, to treat as human. I'm like,
[00:06:30] Geoff: Well, let's talk about dehumanization though. Uh, and I think for Sid and for Zach, you guys could talk about this. Um, like, well, what is it about toxic masculinity that dehumanizes women, but also men, um, ourselves, like how, how does that dehumanization process function within this conversation? I'll start with Zach, but I think Sid, you have a lot of experience just in your coaching and spiritual direction of some of that too.
[00:06:53] Zach Wagner: Mmm. Yeah, I'd love to hear some of that as well. I, in my book, it's focused largely on questions having to do with sexuality. relationship, eroticism, marriage, things like that. And, um, I think there has been, certainly since the Me Too movement, and then also within the church, the Church Too movement, and various scandals and denominational, uh, cover ups and this sort of thing, there's a conversation having to do with masculinity and men, um, as it relates to sexuality.
So that's the angle that my book is coming through a lot. And one of the points I was trying to make is when you think about sexual abuse or quote unquote misconduct or even compulsive sexual behavior or, uh, the term sexual addiction is controversial in various circles, uh, but, um, certainly for me as a kind of Non psychologist, non therapist.
I think it's, uh, I feel kind of in my lane comfortable, uh, describing certain sexual behaviors as addictive. Um, I think there is a tendency to say, And to see very, kind of intuitively, that there are ways that men can relate to women or to others sexually that dehumanizes them. This is the, it's objectifying to women, or you look at women as sex objects, or you treat women like pieces of meat.
Um, all of those things, just even in the language that I was using, we have a, a way of speaking about Attitudes and ways of treating others that dehumanize them. If you're looking at someone as meat, you're not treating them as a person, you're treating them as an object. Um, and, uh, that has all range of applications, um, just in terms of that way of thinking.
Thinking about things, whether it be through use of pornography, or lustful fantasy, or, uh, having a sexual relationship with someone that you have no intent of Maintaining a loving commitment to any number of things, of course. Um, uh, and, but I think it's sometimes less appreciated is the way that these same types of things are not merely dehumanizing to the person who is the object of the sexual fantasy, or assault, or whatever, or abuse, or whatever the case may be.
I argue that, uh, if this is, you know, we're assuming a man to woman kind of situation here, I argue that those ways of acting out and thinking about others are also a way of dehumanizing self, and if you are, uh, a man, Dehumanizing yourself as a man and what I mean by that is that a lot of times I think in the Christian self culture there can we have adopted this narrative around masculinity that is men only think of One thing, as it relates to relationships, or only prioritize one thing, and, uh, that is sex.
So we have this vision of male embodiment that is hypersexual, hyper erotic, and we almost conceive of what it means to be man is to have this hyper erotic lens through which one views the world. So, a way this plays out Is that if there is some sort of untoward relationship, say, in a Christian context between a man and a woman or, uh, you know, a pastor and a congregant, something like that, a lot of people, um, just knee jerk, will find themselves raising Questions like, okay, well, was she quote unquote asking for it, or what was she wearing at the time, or what type of signals was she sending.
And of course that puts all the responsibility on the woman, and implicit in that way of talking about these types of situations is this idea that the man is somehow less responsible or less able to treat others, treat a woman in a dignified human way. And. There's dehumanization, different types of dehumanization, going on on both sides of that equation.
This is not like, oh, men are normal and respected, noble and respected, and kind of fully human, um, participants in these, in this scenario, and, uh, treated with absolute dignity and respect, and women are, uh, demeaned, uh, and treated as less than human. I Of course, the latter is the case, but it is also the case that this is a sub human, sub Christian, I would argue, vision of what it means to be a man.
[00:12:09] Cyd: Yeah. What, what, uh, sort of comes forward for me as you're talking about that second half of things of how it's dehumanizing the man is it's almost like there's this implicit message of you're just an animal. And you have these instincts and these impulses and, um, you know, and then it gets sort of put on women to control the impulses of the, of the animals that they live with and around.
Um, and so that is, you know, I, I. I hear that and I, I resonate with that, you know, and I think that, you know, I was just noticing that like my skin was crawling when you were having that conversation about like, what was she wearing and was she asking for it and what was she doing? And I was just like, the rage is building in me as I hear you talking about that.
And it's just like, you know, to, to have that sense of somehow. Um, the victim is responsible for the perpetrator, right, is just sort of a, I mean, and I think we can all name that that's not the reality of how it is, but that is, that is sometimes the knee jerk response. Um, for me, I think, I think in the work that I have done with people, like even outside of the sexual dynamic, um, to me, I think the, the thing that feels like it's underneath all of this is a sense of like the freedom to choose an
[00:13:28] Zach Wagner: Mhm. Yeah.
[00:13:30] Cyd: Um, and that somehow toxic max masculinity takes away the power of choosing from both men and women, um, because it leaves, it leaves women in the sense of like, um, you know, men believe that I'm sort of a, I'm a prop on the stage for their story. Um, and it's sort of, I'm an accessory to the life of a man.
Um, and not. Not in a conscious way, but you know, that, that, you know, and then, and then we see the flip side of that, of the backlash against that is now, especially in popular culture, there's this sort of general denigration of men in general and sort of like, okay, we're done with that. We don't want any more of that.
Like, we're not going to let you behave that way anymore. Um, and then it becomes this, like, just because you're in the body of a man, you are already my enemy. Right. Or you are already against me. And I know we've had those conversations with our sons who are 18 and 20 of that sense of like, you know, um, in my generation at my age, I am automatically the enemy, right.
It's like that sort of like that, that, that generation is sort of saying like, you know, um, men are, you, we are to be suspicious of men. Even before they have given us a reason to be suspicious of them is sort of the sense that our boys are are, you know,
[00:14:49] Geoff: Well, that's where it's kind of split. I think. I just want to note this for everybody. This is where it's, I feel like it's split between the church and then the culture broader is that, uh, and again, where. The culture larger would be like the media culture and kind of the popular representation. So I don't know so much about like the deep South or something like that, but like, so the church, uh, men, especially conservative churches or evangelical churches, men are given the benefit of the doubt.
Um, but then our kids being raised in this culture, uh, with the me too movements, you know, happening right when they're, you know, teenagers, they were internalizing the broader, like I am a suspect wherever I go all the time. And so, you know, I think. Uh, and this is partly why I think this is such a, uh, conversation is, well, how do we raise boys, but then also women, like in this context where it's like, we don't, both sides are kind of bad.
We don't want to automatically assume that boys will be boys. They should be excused of their behavior when it's bad. We should always assume the best intentions and then blame the women for everything. And then we don't want the reverse too, uh, which is, you know, A male body is inherently dangerous and threatening to every woman that's nearby.
Um, they should be excluded, um, from speaking and participating, uh, because of their danger, uh, and so how do we kind of, yeah, go ahead, Sid.
[00:16:07] Cyd: Yeah. Well, that's where I feel like that underneath is that whole fundamental, like, you know, in, I think a lot of what it means to be human is to have the freedom to be able to choose. Um, you know, we don't, no other species has that, um, or created in God's image in that way. And anytime that we are bound by reactions or we are forced or coerced, um, we don't have the same kind of freedom that like, you know, that, that freedom of, of, I can freely choose.
I can freely choose to receive the God, the love that God has given to me. I can freely choose to love the people in my life. And when we're bound up and held captive by these conditioned reactions and these, you know, these senses of what it means to be masculine and feminine, or these dynamics at player, we're reacting against those dynamics.
We have lost some freedom. don't know if that's making any sense. I'm just thinking on the fly, but that seems to me like what's underneath it all is that loss of freedom to choose.
[00:17:04] Geoff: So, right. So
[00:17:10] Cyd: that's not it,
[00:17:11] Zach Wagner: No, that's no, no, I don't disagree. I'm, I'm thinking, and you guys would know more about this than I would perhaps, but I'm just thinking of kind of, you know, sometimes it's called reptile brain versus, you know, higher brain function type stuff. Um, and, uh, the question that I had listening to you. Just continuing from that is how to think about our, and it does relate to this conversation around masculinity.
How do we relate our instinctual urges, um, which would include things like Protecting oneself, or one's group, or one's family, as well as, um, you know, sexual urges to bond and to reproduce and things like that. And I think what so often happened with male identity is we, like, shrink, and this is the, uh, something I say in the book, we shrink male identity around the sexual and the erotic, um, where we kind of dehumanize, by reducing them to sexual animals as, uh, as you said earlier, Sid.
And, um, then we also hypersexualize women by reducing them to sexual objects. They become objects for the sexual fulfillment of men or for the sexual utility of reproduction or something like that. And, um, yeah, I just think All of it, all of our humanity. I'm just thinking out loud too. Is included in our being created in the image of God, not merely are kind of higher moral ethical functions, but also are in embodied urges and desires like so many of the things like the deep, um, Preservation of the species type desires, I think, are manifested in ways that are really interesting and design and divine.
And, um, you know, in the screw tape letters, one of the things that Wormwood talks about is, uh, how the demons find humans so disgusting because they're this hybrid of spirit and animal. Um, and, uh, that, I think, from a Christian perspective, is really incredible and miraculous and beautiful is that humans are are not mere animals, but we are indeed animals imbued with this divine Um freedom I think as as you as you say Sid, I think that that comes together In a really profound way.
So I think where these scripts of masculinity and even of femininity can go Wrong is when that, uh, beautiful, incredible divinity of what it means to be human, that kind of union of flesh with, uh, spirit or soul, um, is diminished. And, uh, the script Often becomes for men that you're just you're just what you can't help it.
You know, you you see this you're put in this situation This comes on to your computer screen or so and so is interacting with you this way or she was wearing X It's your programming to do this and I think from a Christian perspective. We want to say no actually we as humans can transcend and qualify, uh, those urges in ways that are dignifying to ourselves and to others.
Um, and, uh, I'm tempted to say more about the way the, uh, empowerment of the spirit works in doing that, but I've talked, I've talked enough. So
[00:21:03] Cyd: Yeah. No, I appreciate that because I think that that is a, I mean, yeah. And I think You know, one of the choices I think we have the freedom to make is the choice to reflect on our own behavior. Right. And so, uh, to sort of, so we do have, I mean, of course this, this podcast is called the embodied faith podcast.
So we definitely believe that embodiment is part of being human. but we also have the unique opportunity to step outside of our bodies every once in a while and notice. and reflect and go, huh, this behavior doesn't seem to be in line with the kingdom of God. What's going on here? Um, and Jeff and I just did a podcast the other day about like getting down to the bottom of your desire.
What is it that you really want? What is it that you're really after? Um, and so that, that sort of ability to reflect on our own behavior is also something that makes us, I think, uniquely human. Um, So, yeah, I appreciate everything you're saying, that there is this beauty of, I mean, Jesus is fully human, fully man, fully embodied, and fully God, and we are the same, you know,
[00:22:06] Geoff: would be to, to kind of,
[00:22:08] Cyd: not to say that we are God, I just want to clarify that, but that we are empowered by God. So.
[00:22:14] Zach Wagner: Mm.
[00:22:14] Geoff: of turn, turn the corner a little bit from like, what is toxic masculinity? What, what then is like non toxic masculinity to sum up at the end of the book, you kind of, you, you talk about, um, kind of the brought from just like the, the physical embodied sexuality of like. Growing from boyhood to manhood, you know, being married, you know, the sex and how that functions.
And, uh, and that's all really great. But at the end, you kind of make this turn, I think it was a little broader and you talk about like the goal of masculinity, uh, and you connect that with fatherhood, but you mean that broader than just,
[00:22:50] Zach Wagner: Mm hmm.
[00:22:51] Geoff: biological children. So could you talk a little bit, uh, about that?
[00:22:56] Zach Wagner: Yeah. Um, what
[00:22:59] Geoff: are you a father?
[00:23:00] Zach Wagner: am, I am, yeah, I have three, three young children.
[00:23:04] Geoff: You're.
[00:23:05] Zach Wagner: Um, so it's a busy time. Six, four,
[00:23:08] Geoff: doctoral work at that same age. Actually, not, not one. So six, six and four is about when I, so Lord
[00:23:14] Zach Wagner: well, yeah. Our third is our, our bonus baby. We had no, we had no, um, intention of Yeah, exactly. of, of moving England and adding to the ranks. Uh,
[00:23:25] Geoff: All right. So back to the question.
[00:23:27] Zach Wagner: Um, and she, and she's, and she's, and she's great. And, uh, mercifully our, our easiest in many ways, . So, um, but yeah, so in that chapter, what I'm trying. To, the question I'm trying to ask and then, and then, you know, offer a potential answer is what is our sexuality? You know, if our sexuality isn't the sum total of what it means to be human, but it is a very integral and even core part of our human identity.
So the question I wanted to ask is what is that part of our humanity for? Um, and my answer is in a reference to to, uh, a Reformed Catechism, is that the chief end of male sexuality is fatherhood, or fatherhood is the chief end, or the end goal, or the telos of male sexuality. Um, and another way of saying that is the reason God made us sexual is so that we might become fathers and mothers.
Um, and that need not express itself narrowly in the literal, biological, fathering of children. But even if it doesn't, I think there is something built into our embodied maleness as men that signals a goal of our humanity being a fatherly or paternal orientation towards others in the world. And this is a way of describing how we might move with a cultivating, creative, nurturing, Rearing, protective, provisional, disposition, all these types of things that we might associate with fatherhood and many of which we might also associate with motherhood, by the way, um, towards the world.
So, I, I think if we get a little creative, and a lot of times this is some of the most life giving and interesting theologizing to do is when you're kind of thinking creatively about what is this part of myself for, um, There are all types of arenas that I think our fatherly telos of our sexuality can find expression. Um, both in friendships or professional settings or, um, endeavors in the world, uh, be it. In your home, or artistically, you know, I have a section in the book where I go through a whole list. And a couple people have said, like, Is this fatherhood, is just everything? Like, you're kind of just connecting it to too many places.
Um, but that's kind of, that's kind of the point I want to make. Um, and another The reason for creating this broad definition of the fatherly call, uh, implicit in male embodiment is because, of course, not all men are currently or will become, uh, fathers or, or even uh, become married or be in, you know, long term partnered sexual relationship, uh, like that.
The, um, and, uh, in scripture, of, of course, uh, the apostle Paul was single and so was the Lord Jesus himself. So if we have a, a kind of script of masculinity that needs to be narrowly defined around eroticism and the literal fathering of children, um, we've excluded The Incarnate Son of God from that script.
And, uh, I think that should give us some pause. And, um, does not seem to be the case in my view, that Jesus because he was married or you know, not a literal father did not have a fatherly disposition or did not live into a fatherly calling in the world. Nor is it the case that his sexual part of himself, his sexual humanity, was just kind of incidental or put on the shelf and like, okay, well that's not for me.
I'm my, like, if that were the case, you know, there's no asexual Jesus. There's no asexual human being. Uh, he became incarnate as a, as a sexual person, just like we are.
[00:27:52] Geoff: so much more we could unpack about that. How is it that a male savior is a savior for all sexes? So that's a, for another podcast, uh, so do you have any, yeah,
[00:28:06] Zach Wagner: Can I, can I just give one note on that? Cause, uh, my friend Amy Peeler has written, recently written a book called Women and the Gender of God that is a, I, it's academic but I think accessibly so. Um, uh, wrestling with this question and she does some really great and insightful work there, um, connecting that with, uh, Mary the mother of Jesus and all sorts of things like that.
So, uh, that's just a quick Um, and she
[00:28:32] Geoff: on my list to get on the podcast.
[00:28:36] Zach Wagner: Yeah, there you go. So, yeah, Amy Peeler, Women
[00:28:39] Geoff: there's so much more, uh, obviously that we could, uh, say about this. Again, uh, we've been talking about the book, Non Toxic Masculinity, Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality. And again, it's, it's focused primarily on like those sexual issues and questions coming out of the sexual revolution, as well as Purity culture in the nineties and early, uh, 2000s, uh, in the evangelical movement and just how that has shaped and, or misshapen, uh, how we think about sex and sexuality, um, and how that then, you know, creates some of these kind of issues, lots of other topics could be talked about even as we do this, you know, um, I'm always like, oh, we could do a whole series on all this stuff, but, and maybe we will, but thank you so much for stopping by.
Where can people find you online or the work that you were doing?
[00:29:26] Zach Wagner: Yeah. Um, I have a personal website, zachary c wagner.com. Um, uh, Zachary is spelled Z-A-C-H-A-R-Y-C-W-A-G-N-E r.com. Um. You can, that's like everybody's personal website, it is long overdue for an update, um, so, So I, for instance, will have to update it to put interviews like this and others on there and different speaking events and things that I have going on, but that's the intent.
Um, same. Zachary C. Wagner, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram. Um, I'm not super, super active on those places
[00:30:09] Geoff: And you have three small children.
[00:30:11] Zach Wagner: Um, so, yeah, correct, yeah. Um, so lots of reading and other things that need to happen, but I do poke around, particularly on Twitter from time to time.
[00:30:21] Geoff: I don't.
[00:30:22] Zach Wagner: X now, aren't we? Um, yeah. Uh, so, yeah, that's where people
[00:30:28] Geoff: much for being on and bless your studies and your all aspects of your fatherhood and fathering.
[00:30:35] Cyd: Yeah.
[00:30:35] Zach Wagner: Thank you so much for having me. Blessings.