Growing up in America in the last five decades has proven to be extremely dangerous to boys and young men. One has only to consider the endless diet of harmful Hollywood nonsense that is ever present to young people (if even subliminally). Contrast Michelangelo’s sixteenth-century image of David with the main character in Paul and Chris Weitz’s infamous movie American Pie (1999).
Anyone with the ability to reason ought to draw worrisome conclusions about young men and their self-perception today. American Pie is just one example of a host of vile propaganda to which young men have been exposed. Is it any wonder that our daughters are not safe, even while on a college campus of “higher learning”?
In countless television programs and videos and an overwhelming number of commercials, men are portrayed as incapable buffoons. The entertainment industry portrays young men as concerned about one thing: illicit and uncommitted sex.
Unfortunately, our society has become very hostile toward boys and young men. A lifetime of Hollywood productions, music lyrics, news programs, liberal education, pornography, and video games has taught young men that they are the problem rather than the solution. As is accepted and often repeated, the most dangerous animal on the planet is the adolescent male.
A young man growing up is continuously and often subliminally taught by those in his own neighborhood that he is lazy, stupid, prone to violence, inept, lacking ambition, and completely given over to a troubling and grotesque thirst for sex.
Whether boys and men choose to resist or conform to an authentic masculine norm will determine whether they live happily or in loneliness, anxiety, and pain.
How Can Young Men Think About Themselves?
But how might boys and young men think about themselves? As the world fumbles along in confusion, let us look to a profound model for the character of a man: Jesus Christ. To do so, consider a passage from Sacred Scripture:
[Pilate] went out to the Jews again, and told them, “I find no crime in him. But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover; will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?” They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” . . . Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him. . . . So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” (John 18:39–19:5)
To understand the magnitude of what is happening here, one must understand the expectations of the Jewish people toward Jesus. The Jews were anticipating the arrival of a military messiah at the time of Jesus. They had suffered greatly under the oppression of the Roman Empire and believed that a military messiah would lead a revolt powerful enough to restore the Davidic Kingdom and secure their freedom. When Jesus appears before the Jews, He does so under the weight of their heavy expectations. That is why He enters Jerusalem as a Messianic King and a week later the Jews want Him crucified. Have you ever wondered why St. Peter was in the garden with Jesus to pray and was wielding a sword?
So Pilate unwittingly places before us a choice: “Behold the man!” On his right hand stands Jesus — a man who had incredible power that He did not conceal. He was able to feed five thousand people with a mere basket of bread and some fish (John 6:1–11). Consider the usefulness of such power in the hands of a military leader. Jesus also had the power to cure the blind, lepers, paralytics, and even Malchus, the slave whose ear St. Peter severed when Jesus was arrested. In the course of battle, who would overlook the usefulness of this skill?
More importantly, Jesus had power over death, raising his friend Lazarus, who had died three days earlier (John 11:1–44), a widow’s son (Luke 7:11–17), and the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:35–43). With this kind of power, a military leader could restore dead soldiers quickly to the battlefield. And how many times have military campaigns been decided by the uncontrollable elements of nature? Yet Jesus had powers applicable here as well. He could walk on water (John 6:16–21), calm storms (Mark 4:35–41), curse a fig tree to its doom (Mark 11:12–14), and provide a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1–11). Based on this brief résumé of Christ’s power and abilities, even a Roman general would think twice before engaging such a leader in battle.
Nonetheless, Jesus offers little expectation of a military rebellion. We see this when we witness His daily routine: “And in the morning . . . he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed. . . . And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons. And a leper came to him beseeching him, and . . . he stretched out his hand and touched him. . . . And immediately the leprosy left him” (Mark 1:35, 39, 40–42).
On Pilate’s left hand is Barabbas, whose name in Aramaic, ironically (if not sarcastically), means “son of the father” — a title more appropriate for Jesus. Barabbas, unlike the way he is portrayed in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), is not a lunatic. He is a leader, a man of action, and a man who could offer hope to Israel. He is tough, bold, and cruel. Scripture describes him as a man who “committed murder in the insurrection” (Mark 15:7) and as “a notorious prisoner” (Matt. 27:16) and “a robber” (John 18:40).
Reflecting on this scene from Scripture, we can draw some important conclusions. First, all men are undeniably endowed by God with significant personal power. In the objective world of nature, that cannot be denied. Evolution has manipulated man’s body to be a machine for the defense and care of his family; his body certainly bespeaks the condition of a warrior and a provider. Even more, men who are husbands and fathers have an enormous influence over the emotional and psychological wellbeing of their wives and families. Men are natural-born leaders, builders, and dreamers. Ultimately, men are generative. A man should celebrate and respect all of this.
Secondly, man is given the freedom to choose the type of man he will be and what he will do with the power he has been given. It would be wrong, in the spiritual realm, for a man to lay claim to this power exclusively for his own benefit; after all, he is but a custodian of this power, “for there is no authority except from God” (Rom. 13:1). But God has given man, from Adam to modern man, the freedom to choose the type of custodian he will be.
Will he be like Barabbas: selfish, narcissistic, opportunistic, lusting for greater power and dominance? Or will he be like Jesus: eager to use what he has been given for the benefit of others — family, friends, community, and country? Every man makes his choice, or rather, is required to make his choice.
Jesus makes the correct choice, as is plainly evident by His life. Power is intended to be used for others: “Let us love one another” (1 John 4:7). Remarkably, God lets each man decide how he will use his power. For a very long time now, boys and young men have not been given opportunities to strive for greatness (which encompasses man’s use of power), and they may not even be aware of the possibilities.
A core necessity for any person, male or female, is his identity. In years past, a boy was raised as a part of a community. He knew who he was because he knew from where and from whom he had come. His family, his community, his country, and his faith informed him about who he was.
Hope prevails. Talk to young men and boys: with very few exceptions, they still intuitively know they are meant for higher ideals, great feats of selfless sacrifice, and heroic lives of virtue and honor. They crave the greater, the sacred things in life. These ideals remain latent in the heart of young men.
The mentor must wade through the sewage of a corrupt, disturbing culture, tap the imagination of his young disciple, and help him realize the truth about himself. He must convince his disciple that he need not be lazy, unmotivated, fixated on illicit sex, boorish, and destined to a life of video games in the basement of his mother’s house. Nor should he be reconciled to this plight. More than anything else, a young man yearns to be challenged to be something greater than he is, and he will very likely respond to the challenge of excellence with enthusiasm and determination.
I invite you to sit with a young man and allow him to share with you his innermost thoughts, feelings, anxieties, and motivations. If you are patient and eager to listen, you will discover in him, without any exception, a good man who very much desires to be better.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in The Mentor’s Handbook: How to Form Boys Into Inspiring and Capable Men. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.