The Charles (Pa) Ingalls Test for Manliness

I’m not really sure when I became a “man”.  I was born male, if being a “man” means being male then I have been one for 37+ years.  If being a man occurred when my Dad gave the “sex talk”, then I’ve been a man for about 20 years.  If being a man means I’m an adult, then the government says I became a man at age 18.  Some would say you become a man when you become self-sufficient and committed. Perhaps that is when I got married, so I guess I have been a man for 16 years.  Others will tell you that you aren’t a man until you have children—so maybe I’ve only been a man for 10 years.  If being a man is the is the same as being “mature”, where you stop enjoying toys at Christmas or cartoons on Saturday morning, I’m screwed.

There is a lot of confusion as to what makes a man a man and what it means to be “manly”.  I have three sons and it is incredible to watch how their god-given “mannishness” exhibits itself when compared with my daughter.  When I get home, they want to wrestle.  I walk in and I am immediately a walking punching bag until I sit down on the ground and they begin full on UFC sanctioned fighting.  They rip their shirts off, flex their muscles, and immediately scan the room for any book, toy, pillow, or lego they can use as a weapon.  No holds barred, no places on the body off-limits, they are relentless.  This is an entirely different experience than my daughter.  She wants me to tell her how pretty she looks in the fifteenth bathing suit she has put on.  She doesn’t want to wrestle, she wants me to paint her toe nails with nail polish.  She wants me to sit and read a story with her or push her on the swing and tell her she is my princess.  One thing is clear, they are different.

From this point, this blog can go two different ways–serious or lighthearted–and I am not in a serious mood.   If it is going to be serious, then I’ll have to try to address all the baggage, including my own, that people use as a filter when they hear sermons, read books, or skim blogs.  You see, there is a lot of confusion about what it means to be a man, both in the church and in culture.   And when you are foolish enough to create a “test” for manliness or describe what a man is (even unwittingly through how you speak, dress, or act), you invite every critic with a daddy-issue (we all have one or two) out from the shadows to decry your faulty, narrow-minded, lop-sided, different-than-me characterization.  So, please know that this is all in fun and in no way an effort to marginalize anyone that feels “different” or that they “fail” the test.

I imagine that when my boys come to the place where they individually ask me, “Dad, Am I a man?”, then we’ll open up the Bible and talk about the difference between the 1st Adam we are and the 2nd Adam (Jesus) we are meant to be.   In other word, we’ll talk more about our brokenness, real heart issues, the gospel, and not superficial behaviors (we already do) like you’re going to read.  But, until that question comes up, I am going to have some fun (while still teaching them something) with helping them determine which of those superficial behaviors, mannerisms, or ways of living are in fact manly and which ones are not (also known as girly).  The need for a test or rubric of some kind recently became quite evident. My bride started to do some Yoga.  Yes, she you can in fact love Jesus and still do weird stretching in the shapes of animals.  One fine evening, while the kids were asleep, she was demonstrating some of these strange body contortions while she reminisced about her days as a 7 year old gymnast.  I laughed, rather, mocked the entire thing. Of course, she threw down the challenge, claiming that I couldn’t do it. I responded in my shame that I didn’t want to (knowing I couldn’t) and said in my pride, that  no manly men were not meant to do it.

Of course, my discerning bride laughed it off for what it really was, a refusal to embarrass myself by contorting my body into what is supposed to be a “crane” but would probably look like an Elephant balancing on a pogo stick.   But the exchange got me thinking….how can I determine what is manly and what is not?  I am not talking in some deep theological or philosophical sense, but in a superficial Junior-high humor sort of way.  It is difficult to find a comprehensive test for manliness that really encompasses a solid sense of balance.  You don’t want a hyper-manly warrior without any sense of artistic tenderness or a uber-girly caricature more with style than getting dirty or working hard.   So, as I was talking to I found him, epiphany–Pal Ingalls.   I promptly turned to my bride and said, “If you think Pa Ingalls would do it, then it is probably manly.”  What would Pa do?

Everyone loves Little House on the Prairie, or should.  It is one of the shows that unapologetically taught Christian values and still experienced some level of success.  And the patriarch of the show, Charles Ingalls, gives us what I believe is a solid representation of  man.   This was a man who loves Jesus, loves his bride, loves his children, loves his work, and loves his town.  He is a courageous man, a man of his word, a man who worked very hard, a man who knew when to speak hard words, when to fight with his fists, and when to walk away. This was a man who choose the harder right over the easier wrong, a man who sacrificed everything for those loved, a man who had hard hands and a soft heart.  This was a man who provided for his family, his friends, and his neighbors.   He could fix anything, build anything, and get anything his family needed.  He was what I consider, a manly man, meaning, he was tough, strong, wise, and uncompromising.   And if that is not enough, he was also an artist; he played the violin and designed (and built) his own line of furniture.  The man was a man, and its unfortunate that he was not real but probably a mosaic of the few good parts of many men.

My family and I have watched many episodes of Little House.  And, in hopes of better equipping my boys, I have told them about the “Pa Ingalls” test for manliness.   Asking  “What would Jesus do”  has not proven as helpful as I would have liked–it feels a bit too moralistic and weird.  But knowing that our ability to do anything comes through Jesus in us, Pa Ingalls, a man who loved Jesus, gives them something a little more tangible to emulate in some of the superficial decisions they make every day:  Should I volunteer to help?   Should I defend the helpless from that bully?  Should I open the door for this girl? Should I wear my pants half-way down my butt?  Should I spend hours on video games?  Should I work hard at being useful? Should I waste time?  Should I try to fix this myself?

And of course, should I do Yoga?   And, admittedly, Pa Ingalls might…but only because he loved his bride.


Author: Sam Ford

Sam Ford is a preacher, planter, and pastor from the Pacific Northwest. He is currently pastoring Restoration Road Church in Snohomish, WA.

One thought on “The Charles (Pa) Ingalls Test for Manliness”

  1. “Manly” was Caroline’s pet name for Charles. My wife called me “Manly” today. Does that mean I passed the test?


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