Play the Man, Mark Batterson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.
Summary: Discusses seven virtues that distinguishes men from boys, and how Christian fathers can help sons navigate the passage from youth to manhood.
“He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” –Malachi 4:6
Mark Batterson believes we are facing a crisis of manhood in our culture. We neither know how to “play the man” nor how to “make the man” and these two phrases become kind of a mantra for Batterson’s vision of recovering a truly Christian manhood, and particularly, the crucial work of helping boys make the passage to manhood. Citing the verse above, Batterson lays the major responsibility for this latter task not on teachers, or youth workers, or pastors, but on fathers. But in order to “make the man,” one must “play the man.”
Batterson draws this phrase from the words Polycarp heard facing martyrdom in the Colosseum: “Be strong, Polycarp. Play the man.” Batterson believes one “plays the man” when one embraces and lives out seven virtues:
- Tough Love: a love willing to go to the cross for one they love, to forgive the offender, and to weep when faced with brokenness.
- Childlike Wonder: the sense of adventure and child-like curiosity typified by Teddy Roosevelt who read voraciously and explored just as voraciously, and whose wonder translates into humble worship.
- Will Power: the ability to defer gratification, to say “no” to desire to say “yes” to a life of integrity.
- Raw Passion: “An insatiable energy that motivates you to live each day like it’s the first day and last day of your life.” He believes this comes as one defeats the three-headed dragon of doubt, apathy, and lust.
- True Grit: Commending the example of the one-armed explorer of the American West, John Wesley Powell, he talks about the physical and mental toughness that is characterized as resilience.
- Clear Vision: Real men live out of a vision of a life well-lived, shaped by the mission of Jesus and they give themselves to instilling that vision in their families.
- Moral Courage: He argues that Jesus didn’t die to keep us safe but to make us dangerous, which begins by choosing to wash feet and taking responsibility to serve rather than washing our hands of responsibility.
Batterson takes a chapter to explore each of these virtues, illustrating them from historical figures. One of the things I appreciated was that he incorporates honesty about where we fall short into discussions of each of these virtues, as well as illustrations from his own life. He also stresses that while he is speaking to men, by no means does he limit these virtues to men. I appreciated the fact that he seeks to encourage his daughter as well as his two sons in developing these qualities and a physical, mental and spiritual fiber, that included preparing to do the Alcatraz swim with his daughter.
The second part of the book focuses on “making the man”–how fathers may help their sons make this passage to virtuous manhood. Mostly, what he does is share what he did with his two sons in developing a discipleship covenant that included physical, mental, and spiritual challenges and that culminates in a rite of passage which included both an ordeal (a rafting trip down the Colorado River with one son, and a rim to rim hike of the Grand Canyon with the other) and a ceremony marking the passage with a blessing.
I suspect some women reading this may be uneasy about a book like this. Is this yet another assertion of male power over women? I don’t see evidence of this. I would like to have seen him add a virtue of respectful partnership with women to make this more explicit. What I see him addressing is the phenomenon of boys running around in men’s bodies, either passive or playing macho games of sexual conquest. His book is a call to character, and to the critical role fathers, or significant male mentors, can play in helping boys become men of character, of virtue.
I do hear overtones of John Eldridge and the “wild at heart” phenomenon. The question I would press with Batterson is whether this is simply a male need, or rather that all of us, both men and women are meant to live “dangerously” in Christ. I’ve had the privilege to work alongside women who are strong leaders equally ready to take God-sized risks. I actually think one of the most exhilarating experiences a leader can have is to work within teams with strong leaders of both genders who see leadership as not about power but partnership in serving the people of God in pursuit of the kingdom of God. Equally, I’m convinced that the best marriages are marked by two mature people mutually serving each other and pursuing God’s call together. While I would have liked Batterson to make that more explicit as something critical to the discipleship of our sons, his call to men to “play the man” and to fathers to “make the man” is one that I think is desperately needed in our day.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.