This book has too much progressive ideology and not enough scripture: My review of "Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality" by Zachary Wagner


Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality by Zachary Wagner (IVP Academic 2023) is a denunciation of purity culture in the white evangelical church and a plea for the church to adopt teaching on sexuality that is redemptive and grace-filled. 

Right off the bat in this review I should mention one thing that I found a little jarring: the author uses progressive words and phrases when discussing sexuality. Examples: "cisgendered" is used multiple times. Wagner asks readers whether it is reasonable to expect "Queer Christians" (his term) to remain chaste (pages 40, 41). He uses the phrase "male privilege" (page 45) and "male gaze" (page 47) in a section on patriarchy. This is concerning from my perspective, because Christians who adopt the preferred language of liberation movements generally end up viewing all issues through the oppressor/victim lens. And before long they minimize or abandon scriptural teaching in favor of progressive views on the issues. 

I did not expect to find this in a book published by InterVarsity Press, the publishing company that carried titles in a previous generation by evangelical titans like John Stott and J.I. Packer. What is going on? I wondered if this would turn out to be a book on deconstruction.  

And speaking of progressive perspectives, what is Wagner's view on transgenderism? He doesn't address that issue in the body of the book but you can get a glimpse into Wagner's thought process in the footnotes to chapter 14: "I also acknowledge that some people who identify as men may not have the same reproductive capacities of cisgendered men." (pages 211, 212.) What could Wagner possibly mean by that sentence other than, "females who think they are males don't have penises that deliver sperm"? That Wagner writes such a contorted sentence makes me wonder if he is more captive to trans and leftist perspectives than biblical perspectives.

More humorous than concerning, some of the material has a vibe of "Men Need To Be Confident Enough In Their Masculinity To Carry An NPR Tote Bag." The section on fighting traditional Western male stereotypes (beginning on page 49) is unintentionally comical. I imagined the following sentences (pages 49 and 50) in the voice of Michael Scott (The Office):

Many of our most cherished artists and fictional characters are in touch with their emotions. What would we say about Lin-Manuel Miranda's Alexander Hamilton? Or William Shakespeare's love sonnets. Are these men less manly for having emotions? 

Anyway, back to the progressive-sounding lingo. I wonder who the target audience is. As a veteran of lots of evangelical small groups and men's retreats over the decades, I can assert that conservative evangelical men do not use words and phrases like cisgender, Queer Christians, male gaze, etc. Is the author really trying to appeal to the average man in the pews of evangelical churches?

I should mention one facet of the author's writing style that I found weak: Wagner gets overwrought a lot. For example, he says that evangelicals "worship" sex (pages 42, 162). Why exaggerate and be dramatic? When it comes to discussing important issues, Tim Keller famously said when you are discussing an issue, never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not own. Well, no evangelical would affirm a charge that they worship sex. It is preposterous, and this assertion won't persuade evangelicals to consider Wagner's views. Going over-the-top like this may highlight an immaturity on the author's part.

A final complaint: Wagner moves into feminist critique territory in Chapter three in a discussion about the fairy tales and films that young American boys and girls watch. But he's not talking about fairy tales with sexual themes or violence; Wagner singles out Prince Charming and Mel Gibson's Braveheart as promoting harmful ideas about sexual relationships. From page 53: 

Sexual conquest is characteristic of all manner of male heroes and role models... Even Prince Charming, whom many claim as the paragon of Western masculine virtue, isn't free from this trait. The rescue of the princess in a tower, the slaying of the dragon, and every other western trope of masculine heroism often implies a type of sexual conquest. While the sexual subtext of fairy tales is not stated explicitly, the implication is that the knight's (violent) heroism gains him access to the sexual affections of the princess.

I don't think that feminist critiques (like his perspective that the Prince Charming story is harmful because it implies the knight's sexual conquest of the princess) will be taken seriously by non-feminists.  

It turns out this isn't a book on deconstruction, thankfully. I hope I haven't been too critical in this review because Wagner certainly does identify some positive recommendations to bring to teaching sexuality in the church. Some of his solid contributions: Wagner puts responsibility for male sexuality squarely where it belongs: on the male. Wagner also emphasizes women should never be blamed for the sins of men, no matter what they were wearing. He brings grace into the discussion on sexuality, saying a focus on rules and pledges and accountability groups (which usually lead to shame and isolation and men being stuck in immaturity) are not effective in leading to maturity. The best way forward for men, Wagner says, is authentic community where men can grow into godliness and maturity. 

So Non-Toxic Masculinity has some good recommendations for the church to consider regarding teaching on sexuality. It's unfortunate so much of the material is framed in the language of liberation ideologies rather than scripture. Three out of five stars. 

Review: "The Gulag Archipelago" by Alexander Solzhsenitsyn



cancel culture

The Soviet communists didn’t invent cancel culture, but they surely perfected it. 

The communists eliminated political opposition, set up a huge secret police network, established a far-flung forced labor camp system, exiled dissidents, and, encouraged citizens to inform on each other. It’s no wonder Soviet citizens were afraid to speak their minds. The sordid history of Soviet terror and oppression is all documented in the pages of this book. 

In The Gulag Archipelago named by TIME magazine the “Best Nonfiction Work of the Twentieth Century”  Alexander Solzhenitsyn traces the history and development of the vast Soviet network of prison and work camps, which began after the Bolshevik uprising in 1917 and continued for four decades.


Somewhere between ten and fifty million people were sent to forced labor camps. Solzhenitsyn himself served eight years at a labor camp. His offense? Criticizing Stalin in private letters. 

This book will give you a new appreciation for Alexander Solzhenitsyn one of the great men of the last century and it will also open your eyes to the horrors of totalitarianism. I bought my abridged edition (shown above) at Barnes & Noble

Nice introduction to the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

It’s hard to overstate the impact Alexander Solzhenitsyn's short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had on the Soviet totalitarian system. Published in 1962, this book was the first account of Stalin’s forced labor camps to be published inside the Soviet Union. Millions of Soviet citizens read it. Solzhenitsyn, who had himself served eight years hard labor for criticizing Stalin, became an overnight sensation. The Soviet government was so rattled by the public’s reception that two years later the government banned all works by Solzhenitsyn and proceeded to marginalize and repress him. In 1974 the government stripped him of his Soviet citizenship and deported him to West Germany.


Over the next three decades no one was more effective at exposing the moral rot at the core of Soviet totalitarianism — most powerfully in his masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago.


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich takes the reader through a single day in a labor camp, from reveille to lights out, through the eyes of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. A stark, powerful portrayal of the desperation of prisoners trying to survive and maintain their dignity in the harsh conditions of a Soviet prison camp.


One brief word about the characters in the book. One of the sympathetic characters in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a fellow prisoner, Alyosha the Baptist. As the day ends Shukhov and Alyosha are on their bunks having a conversation about prayer. Shukhov tells the Baptist that prayer doesn't work, and won't shorten anyone's sentence. Alyoshka explains that getting out of prison isn’t the point: "You mustn't pray for that. What do you want your freedom for? What faith you have left will be choked in thorns. Rejoice that you are in prison. Here you can think of your soul." (p.141.) Shukhov respected Alyosha as someone who read the gospels regularly, and who was generous with other prisoners. Shukhov reflects: "Alyoshka was talking the truth. You could tell by his voice and his eyes he was glad to be in prison."


It seems to me Solzhenitsyn is hinting at the spiritual transformation he experienced during his own imprisonment, which he details in more depth in The Gulag Archipelago. In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn describes his gratitude for prison since it gave him an opportunity to nourish his own soul. "I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: Bless you prison, for having been in my life."


This little book my Bantam Classics version is 144 pages is a compelling introduction to Solzhenitsyn. Buy it from Amazon here

Now reading: "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich"

Now reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn's short novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” which chronicles the cruelty of daily life in a Soviet prison camp. My Bantam Classics version is 144 pages.