Paul Coughlin's treatise on masculinity for Christian men is unsubtle in tone. His argument is repetitive. His research is narrow and clichéd. He wears his heart too much on his sleeve.
All in all, a very worthwhile book.
Somebody has to raise his voice to get attention when a point of view has its plausibility smothered at the outset by prevailing assumptions and by cultural trends so monolithic as to appear obvious. Until somebody says 'Why?'. Or - in Paul Coughlin's case - 'No way!'
Because I believe this book is a standard-bearer for a reconfiguration of masculinity by Christian men today, I'm going to review it in somewhat more detail than might be expected.
Coughlin is angry, but he's not out of control. If you think those two descriptions are synonymous, you really need to read this book. Anger is not violence. Anger is not rage. Anger is not bad. Equanimity in the face of outrage can be the coldest cut of all. Coughlin wants you to know he's mad for the right reasons, and that his anger has led him and may lead you to constructive engagement rather than withdrawal or violence (whether emotional or physical).
In the first of his eleven chapters ('Christian Nice Guys Aren't So Nice', pp. 13-27), the author rips into what 'the church' has taught guys they are to become. In my judgment, Coughlin's major weakness is his penchant for blaming 'the church' either directly or by use of a damning passive: 'we have been taught ...' To be fair, Coughlin does offer caveats at intervals ('I heard what I wanted to hear'.) Yet he leaves the scent of victimization at the hands of nameless ecclesiastics, something that in his better moments he denies.
At the same time his gift for a turn of phrase is evident from these first pages. 'The church taught me to worry more about sin than purpose, more about keeping up appearances than searching for and embracing meaning. More about what I shouldn't do than what I should do. More about being nice than being good. Fear of failure, of falling short, of trying, but not being perfect, has us paralyzed, immobile, and, eventually, indifferent.'
If Coughlin is even half right about the problem - this reviewer believes he is - then we ought to tolerate a bit of shouting and bad prose on the way to naming the thing.
How did we get here? Coughlin believes the agent was a feminized Jesus, thrust upon us in an attempt to get men to behave *nicely*. As a result, says Coughlin, men stay away from churches in droves.
I'm not competent to say whether men stay away from church en masse for the reason Coughlin cites, though I suspect their reasons for doing so are rather more complicated than that. Still, as a young man I was drawn to a masculine, athletic, self-confident and genuine pastor to my considerable good because his masculinity *contrasted* with that of other Christians I knew. As a product of that and other experiences like it, I can affirm from personal experience that Coughlin is on to something. A more nuanced analysis might take into account that men abandon church for all sorts of reasons, leaving the institution in the hands of women who - quite naturally - shape the place to their own tastes and preferences.
In chapter three, ('Other Earnest but Damaging Church Messages to Men', pp. 48-68), Coughlin introduces one of the most powerful notions of that particular sector of the men's movement that he represents: 'domestication' (sometimes 'over-domestication). Such an idea might seem alien to the working woman who returns to clean up the candy wrappers and beer cans that mark the orbit of the underemployed couch potato who slouches at its center.
Yet for all its photogenic awfulness, this sight is not a part of the life of millions of men who return from *their* consuming job to find babies thrust into their arms, dishwashers waiting to be loaded by them, a spouse or significant other who needs to verbalize the last 14 hours and anticipates full attention as she does. Coughlin is on to an important reality in the lives of many men at this point in feminism's long run into the cultural mainstream.
Women reading this review might feel nudged at this point to sketch out the cumulative acquisition of roles that has weighed *them* down, too, in recent decades. And they'd be right. But this is not the moment. Coughlin is inserting a word edge-wise into a debate that is largely carried out in terms of soccer moms, overworked wives, and the partners of men with the interpersonal aptitude of an over-ripe cabbage. Coughlin wants us to listen for just a moment while he speaks for men who are not like that. And who want to become better.
Coughlin says 'the church' (there he goes again ...) tells men to shift their basic nature from rugged to gentle. He thinks that's the message men least need to hear, though he's aware that rugged is no more synonymous with 'good' than gentle is: 'As broached in chapter 1, it would be much easier and cleaner if the Christian Nice Guy problem were solely the fault of the church's good intentions. But the problem goes deeper. We need to advance our reasoning skills so we can obtain additional insight into ourselves and into God ... We sometimes don't recognize paradox or tension in the Bible or, for that matter, with life in general. Good people are both gentle and rugged, depending on the circumstance (this title is italicized in Coughlin's book). There's no incongruity here.'
Coughlin's model hews to the ancient Christian concept of imitatio dei, in which God - the Rugged and the Gentle par excellence - is the model for human behavior, in this case male human behavior. The church, he thinks, has split God down the middle and told men to act like the gentle half.
Paul Coughlin knows a lot about shame as the fruit of abuse and abandonment, and passivity as its survival strategy. He is the son of an awful woman (Chapter four, 'Childhood, Where We Learned to Live Small', pp. 69-88). If you want to know about her, chapter four will give you enough to make you cringe. Autobiography becomes didactic in that Coughlin claims to have conquered these adaptive deficiencies and to invite other men who have *learned* to live small to do the same.
Women don't respect passive men. I have heard that mantra from many sources, many of them female and a host of them representing ideological angles that would seem to cancel each other out except that they agree on this. As a text critic who knows how to weigh and evaluate disparate exemplars of the same ancient text, I have learned this: when widely varying textual samples agree, you nearly always have an early and genuine reading. So I think it's true: Women don't respect passive men. Coughlin doesn't think so either (Chapter five, 'How Being "Nice" Ruins Love and Marriage', pp. 89-105).
Further, he claims that 'most women don't divorce their husbands due to abuse (only about 6 percent), but because of a general lack of closeness or of "not feeling loved and appreciated".' A pedant might object that most women don't divorce their husbands at all. But Coughlin makes his point. Male passivity is a toxic chemical that is only appropriate in one or two contexts, but leaks like a busted tanker in our generation. To borrow a phrase from popular culture, it isn't what women want.
There is a potent feminist reflex that often kicks in at this point and insists that passive men are better than violent men, and that you only need to visit a women's shelter to absorb the truth of that. This reviewer believes that instinct for polarization of the options is both sad and convenient. Sad, because it masks the truth to well-meaning people (many of them self-declared feminists) who would welcome a good and genuine alternative if they could only see it. Convenient, because like most ideological rigidities it motivates no one to do the hard work of seeking and finding the truth.
Coughlin is not urging violence or self-centered masculinity over against what he considers to be endemic masculine passivity. Though it will be considered a smokescreen by some suspicious readers, Coughlin is calling men to an active engagement with their women that values and nourishes the latter while refusing to assume the diminished role that our culture would reserve for men, sometimes as penitence for crimes against women with which they had literally nothing to do.
I find the author's sixth chapter (We're Men, Not Eunuchs', pp. 106-115) his most poignant. Coughlin is perturbed by a kind of false piety that he believes prevents women from doing the work of discovering their man's sexual needs and responding to them. As a product of Christian and churchly upbringing, I find myself in essential agreement. I estimate that, on those occasions when shared sexual life has become a topic of instruction or pious conversation, perhaps 95% of its burden has been to compel the animal-esque male to be more sensitive to his wife's less earthy needs and pace. Coughlin wants to turn the tables on this and ask whether men can have just a moment to respond. Bravo to him for doing so! My own unscientific polling on this dynamic appears to suggest that the men I know (admittedly, a self-selecting group) are more rather than less knowledgeable about the sexual needs of both genders than their respective partners. Maybe I'm wrong. Probably I'm overstating. But the received truth on this matter lies so far to the other end of the continuum that Coughlin deserves a sympathetic reading as much here as anywhere in his rough-edged book.
Coughlin believes that an emasculated view of men harms boys as well as women and girls (chapter 7, 'Confused to Vilified: Our Culture's View of Masculinity', pp. 116-137). I find it difficult to argue with his conclusions, not least because I've begun counting the number of television advertisements that welcome school children home from a day spent mostly in the care of women (full disclosure: the public school which my two boys attend has superb men as well as women in the classroom) by casting men as buffoons who simply don't get it. I enjoy these ads, too, because they're funny. But I've learned to play the critical observer role by pointing out the cumulative effect on perceptions of gender that this man-as-dingbat trend establishes, something the Third Culture Kid young men in my household, with their savvy ability to triangulate on all assertions of authority, need little help in deconstructing.
Coughlin has clearly been burnt and perhaps burnt badly in the workplace (chapter eight, 'Nice Guy, Naïve Guy: How Being Nice Hurts Men at Work', pp. 138-153). It's impossible to assess the landscape here with only one angle on the proceedings. Some readers will find his warnings about family and over-spiritualized work environments helpful.
Chapters nine and ten are required reading for those who still feel cynical after reading this far into this review. ('Masculinity: The Journey from Nice Guy to Good Guy (Part 1)', pp. 154-167; 'Masculinity: The Journey from Nice Guy to Good Guy (Part 2)', pp. 168-182). There you find Coughlin's celebration of domesticity--in its proper proportions--and a definition of masculinity that ignores the cringing, embraces risk, faces down fear, and actually protects the weak and vulnerable who surround a man. I can hardly think of a more biblical notion. A final chapter tosses words at patches that got missed first time around (chapter ten, 'Practical Help for Your New Life Ahead', pp. 199-224).
So what is Paul Coughlin trying to say, and does it matter?
By my lights, he's a talk-radio host who has taken seriously the oral tradition offered by ten thousand callers and detected a trend that runs counter to conventional gender history but rings true in the hearts of men and women who have found cultural convention to be empty relational calories, drained of character and oversold on taste.
He's chosen to write a man's book for men. I think he's got a woman's book in him, but he has chosen not to lead with that book. A reviewer has to evaluate what an author has actually claimed to write. Coughlin has written a necessary book.
He's over-blamed the church and allowed himself to sound like he and other men are victims. But he's over-written perception--not always effectively--with moments of lucidity that need to be taken as seriously as his occasionally over-heated narrative.
He has asked us to consider whether standard egalitarian ideology has not robbed men of something precious, without which it proves difficult or impossible for them to fulfill a hard-wired calling. He claims that feminism's necessary pendulum-swinging project has been too successful for its own good, that in entering the mainstream this dialectical movement has not become stuck (temporarily, but too long) in the 'antithesis' position.
He has not sketched out in any detail what a new synthesis might look like. He has merely stated with some passion that where we are right now ain't it.
Bully for Coughlin. May Nice Guys turn into Good Guys in droves and make us forget the day when the Cult of Niceness was the law of the land. Women *and* men will rejoice in that day.