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“Where Have All the Good Men Gone?” the Young Adult-Fiction Edition – #2

“Where have all the good men gone?”

It’s a question most of us have either asked or been asked

at some point. As a leader in three different singles ministries spanning more

than a decade, I know I heard that inquiry more than once.

My purpose today isn’t to answer that question definitively,

one way or the other. I know there are godly, Christian women out there who

wrestle with this question — even as I can think of quite a few godly Christian

guys out there who are jumping up and down and shouting, “We’re right here.”

Still, I don’t think it’s a reach to say that there are

cultural forces at work that seem to be working against men. Once upon a time,

perhaps a generation or two ago, men’s roles in society and in relationships

were fairly well defined. These days, however, if you ask what it means to be a “good

man,” I suspect you might get blank stares from many people. There is something

of a crisis in masculine identity out there. Blend that with mixed messages about

what a man is supposed to do and be, and the result can be confusion and


That observation is hardly revolutionary in Christian

circles. But this weekend I came across a similar assessment of the state of

men in another, perhaps unexpected context: young adult fiction. In her article

YA Fiction and the End of Boys” (published in the Los Angeles Review of

Books), UCLA English professor Sarah Mesle argues that while there are plenty

of empowering young female role models out there these days, she doesn’t think

the same is true when it comes to men.

Mesle begins her article with a personal anecdote:

When I was pregnant the first time, I hoped I would have a

girl. I know, obviously, that it’s hard to be a girl … but it seemed that

parenting a girl, as a task, offered an appealing kind of clarity. You teach a

daughter to be a strong, brave woman. But what, I wondered, do you teach a son?

“Don’t get too full of yourself,” was about the best I could come up with.

She then moves into her premise, namely that things aren’t

going very well for men in contemporary YA fiction:

I remember that quandary every time I read an essay about

gender in Young Adult literature (which, since I teach it, is often). I see, in

the ongoing conversation about Bella and Katniss, our culture pondering whether

YA novels support the strong daughters we all want to raise. But as we debate

ad nauseam whether, for example, Bella Swan is a dangerous role model for young

women, we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell

young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to

them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?

The contemporary uncertainty towards young men snaps into

focus when we compare recent texts to their literary ancestors —

nineteenth-century novels for young readers. Hope Leslie, Jo’s Boys, Northwood, The Lamplighter: these novels

heralded the end of boyhood as a happy ending, the beginning of a triumphant

journey into a powerful manhood. But today’s YA boys approach their manhood

with trepidation. And they should. The adult men who populate YA fictional

worlds are often careless, corrupt, incompetent — sometimes even cruel — and

only rarely kind.

Why is it that in YA literature — a genre generated entirely

to describe the transition to adulthood — there is so much fear and ambivalence

surrounding manhood? When I read contemporary young adult novels, I see them

asking over and over again a fascinating question, a question both for boys and

for the stories describing them: Are there any good men? And how can a boy become

a good man, if he doesn’t know what that would mean?

Wow. That last question is worth chewing on: “How can a man

become a good man, if he doesn’t know what that would mean?”

Personally, I’m deeply grateful to have known some good men:

My father. The man who discipled me in the faith in college. And several other

good friends and mentors since then. These men have lived out, in front of me,

what it means to be a man. When I ding someone’s car in a parking lot with my

door, for example, I leave a note. Not because I’m especially virtuous, but

because that’s how my father taught me to live. He’s a man of honesty and

integrity, and I can readily see how his character has shaped my own.

But too often in our culture — and especially in our entertainment culture — men are not represented

as honest and full of integrity. Or willing to take responsibility for their

choices. Some of them can’t even make choices — they’re simply confused and

paralyzed. I’d suggest that the trend

Mesle observes here extends far beyond the pages of YA fiction and into many,

if not the majority of characterizations of men on TV and at the movies as

clueless, selfish, “lovable” dufuses, including (and sometimes especially)


Mesle concludes her article by saying, “I want to help my

sons imagine their manhood as essential to their best selves, not as a threat

to it. What I am hoping for is books that guide them as they learn to be inside

their manhood, rather than always on the outs.”

At the risk of sounding utterly cliché, those of

us who follow Christ have such a Book. And for those of us striving to be good men,

we would do well to cling to Scripture’s wisdom on that subject and ruthlessly

reject the lies our culture would have us swallow when it comes to the subject of

genuine, godly masculinity. 

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About the Author

Adam Holz
Adam Holz

Adam R. Holz has served as an editor and writer for Plugged In for 20 years. He also spent a decade working for The Navigators, mostly as associate editor for Discipleship Journal. Adam is the author of the NavPress Bible Study “Beating Busyness.” Adam and his wife, Jennifer, have three children and enjoy watching movies, playing board games and playing music together.

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