I’ve never been religious […] none of it ever stuck. But I’ll tell you, in the last three, four, five years, I am most open towards some sort of spiritual awakening, some sort of faith, something, than I’ve ever been in my life. And I can see, I can totally understand the case, I’m just kind of waiting for that epiphany to happen.Jack Murphy, masculinity advocate – Jan 20, 2021
People have been writing about a crisis in masculinity for decades now. But what has become clearer over time is that the “crisis in masculinity” is a symptom of something else: a crisis in male spirituality.
Pastors and priests have observed for decades now the decline in male participation and attendance at church.
Jack Donovan’s latest book, Fire in the Dark, picks up where The Way of Men and A More Complete Beast left off in confronting this crisis in masculinity head on. Whereas The Way of Men was in many ways a practical book, and A More Complete Beast begins to touch on the more positive and creative aspects of male spirituality, Fire in the Dark is an explicitly and directly spiritual book that looks at religion — and the value of religion — in a masculine frame.
To people like Jack Murphy — and other men who are now recognizing an inner need for religion or spirituality of some kind — Fire in the Dark is Donovan’s literary answer.
But Fire in the Dark is not local. As with The Way of Men, where Donovan looked for the universals that defined masculinity across all cultures rather than dwelling on the masculine specifics of any particular culture (particulars which were used by academics to find contradictions and attempt to tear down masculinity as a concept), Fire in the Dark takes a universal approach to masculine spirituality and connection with the Gods. Most of his references are to Germanic pagan tradition, Greek and Roman classics, the Rig Veda, or the Bible, but this is argued to be from the practical perspective of familiarity–in principle, the theory of spirituality presented almost certainly applies to understanding myth and religion of the peoples from Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. The thesis is argued to be universal because the basis for the spirituality presented by Donovan — which has its symbolic roots in the Sun — existed for all people at all times.
I once had someone tell me that the word “aryan” meant “people of the sun.” […] The Egyptians were pretty damn “solar.” So were the Mesopotamians and the Aztecs. The sun has been a powerful symbol to people all around the world because it is something that all of us have always been able to see above us.Donovan, Fire in the Dark
As with The Way of Men, Fire in the Dark argues for a set of ideal character qualities that naturally emerge from a historically predominant state of existence. In The Way of Men, that context was the primordial gang, existing on “the perimeter” that had to hunt and fight in order to survive. The tactical virtues of strength, courage, mastery, and honor are the virtues that this primordial gang would always — inevitably — come to value in itself and of its members. This is the foundation and essence of what masculinity is.
Fire in the Dark begins by looking for the origin of that perimeter itself. What is this perimeter separating? For there to be a perimeter, there must be walled-off “known,” separated from the open “unknown.” But where does this “known” come from?
Donovan answers this with the story of the “first men”:
They were not the first men who ever lived. They are the First Men in this story about this particular fire. The First Men came from somewhere. They came from another fire and another story. There are many fires and many stories about fires. But they all start out more or less like this one.Donovan, Fire in the Dark
The first men exist in order during the day, where the light of the sun permits vision, understanding, ordering, and security. But at night, the chaos of darkness threatened. Natural hazards, the cold, predators and other men are particularly dangerous in darkness when they cannot be identified. The men who could create and maintain a campfire, however, created a sun-like semi-sphere of order, even through the darkness of night. They created the possibility of stability and continuity by warding off chaos, by capturing and imposing order upon chaos. It is from this story of the first men around the fire that Donovan builds up three distinctive concepts of Gods that seem to have existed for all men across all time, wherever groups of men fought back against the darkness with the ordering power of light.
- The Sky-Father
- The Striker
- The Lord of the Earth
These deities — or, for Christians, aspects of a singular deity — represent the roles that men have always identified with in their highest and most idealized forms, in relation to this need for creating and preserving order from chaos.
The Sky-Father is the one who creates the fire — who creates order (cosmos) from disorder (chaos). Yaweh, Zeus, Odin, and Varuna are all examples. These deities make separations, delineations, and distinctions, drawing lines and measurements, and otherwise creating “the world” simply by creating order.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.Genesis 1:1-5
The Striker is the one who protects and expands the boundaries of this order. He is the prototypical “masculine” man, and is exemplified by deities such as Apollo, Ares, Thor, Indra, and Perkunas. One might make a case that in Christianity, Jesus is actually a Striker, where his words are weapons of truth and distinction against the enemy of the Accuser, who is a chaotic and dark force. This metaphorical understanding is made more explicit in the book of Revelation:
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.Revelation 1:12-16
But for the most part, the Striker is a warrior and an agent of violence.
The Lord of the Earth is the one who stokes the fire and maintains and improves the order created by the Father. Donovan mentions Freyr, Hephaistos, Quirinus, Teutates, Pan, and Dionysus as exemplifying aspects of this Lord — everything to do with agriculture, the arts, craftsmanship, trade and commerce, fertility, livestock, and otherwise maintaining all the detail-work of everyday life that keeps the order functioning. One might imagine that the “Holy Spirit” would be the Christian version of this, which comes down and causes accepting Christians to act in accordance with the order imposed by God.
All three of these deities (or aspects of a deity) exist in most religions, and can provide a point of connection for men to those religions. But to others, they can serve as standalone Gods, concepts, or just ideas — different hats that people can put on in pursuit of approaching a chaotic world with the intention of creating and maintaining a sphere of order around oneself. It’s a more masculine way of approaching life… which means — for men — a better way of approaching life.
As a work of literature, Fire in the Dark has a very visual style, yet still dwells extensively on the linguistic origins of certain terms and the names of Gods. It is a fairly quick read, composed of short paragraphs which are — with a couple of exceptions — not particularly technical or conceptually dense. For 186 pages (plus an excellent Afterword and a few essays), it goes by fast. I finished the book in two days.
In conclusion, I cannot recommend the book highly enough. Anyone who has enjoyed Donovan’s previous writings will almost certainly enjoy this one as well, despite his departure from the skulls and “darker” themes of his previous works in favor of a more “solar” cover and overall feel.
For an intro to the concept, you can read Donovan’s essay on Solar Masculinity here.