My manly bona fides: I’ve spent sixteen years in the Marine Corps and sixteen seconds (cumulatively) riding bulls. I’ve spent my summers in 104-degree weather baling hay, shoeing horses, castrating hogs, and running laps for sadistic football coaches. I’ve fixed pump jacks in Texas oil fields and made auto parts in a Missouri factory. I’ve changed avionics on F-18s, tires on Humvees, and a carburetor on a '76 Gremlin.
I’ve hunted for snipe and fished for shark. I’ve eaten rattlesnake, alligator, and the pork patty from an MRE. I’ve stoically endured tornados, typhoons, and a two-year-old toddler. I keep a .40 caliber Glock under my pillow. My hero is John Wayne.
The counter-argument to my manliness: I own a lot of Celine Dion albums.
In other words, while there is some evidence that I am—or at least once was—a fairly “manly man”, I don’t fit the culture’s ideal of masculinity. Sure, compared to a skinny jeans-wearing hipster, I’m a model of virility. But compared to your average Navy SEAL, I’m a wee bit effeminate. I’m not too concerned about myself since I’m old (42) and secure with my place on the man scale. But I worry about the young men—especially young Christian men—who are trying to navigate their way through the maddingly vague and conflicting cultural expectations of manhood in modern America.
Unfortunately, trying to find one’s place in the male pecking order based on cultural cues is an American tradition; even more unfortunate is that this custom has been adopted by the American church.
Although this has been a problem for decades, it has increased recently because of the resurgent fear of the “feminization” of the church. For a purportedly repressively patriarchal organization, the American church has a peculiarly perennial obsession with being associated with the feminine. No doubt some of the concern is nothing more than a childish "girls are icky" male chauvinism. But there is also a genuine reason why we should be concerned about the church's failure to attract men.
A 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that women outnumber men in attendance in every major Christian denomination, and they are 20% to 25% more likely to attend worship at least weekly. Why does it matter that woman are more church-going than men? “If the mom comes [to church], there's a 15% chance the family will,” says Pastor Ross Sawyers of 121 Community Church in Grapevine, Texas. “But if the man comes to church, 90% of the time the family will come along behind.”
Attracting men has therefore become an urgent evangelistic concern, especially—though not exclusively—in evangelical churches. The result is a series of men-centric initiatives that are presumably endorsed by the manliest man of them all—Jesus!
The new focus on a rugged, blue collar, warrior Jesus is a direct reaction to his cultural appropriation during the 1960s and 1970s. During those decades when the ideal of masculinity was in flux, Christ was portrayed as a sensitive, pacifistic, Phil Donahue-style guru (think “hippie Jesus”). As Msgr. Charles Pope recently wrote:
1970s Jesus was “nice,” and I should be nice too. In my 1970s Church we had no crucifix. Rather there was a cross and a rather slender and starry eyed Jesus sort of floated there in front of the Cross. The cross, it would seem, was all too much for a kinder gentler Jesus. The cross was, how shall we say . . . so “unpleasant.”
Somehow, even as a teenager, I craved a stronger, manly Jesus. My heroes then were Clint Eastwood and I loved John Wayne movies which my father called to my attention. Now those were men. (I know they were into revenge, but I’d learn about that later).
The “Jesus” I was presented with seemed soft and unimpressive compared to them and, teenager that I was, I was unmoved. Who will follow an uncertain trumpet? The basic message of Jesus 1970 was “be nice” but 1970s Catholicism (which Fr. Robert Barron calls “beige Catholicism”) stripped away the clarion call of repentance and trumpet-like command that we take up our cross, that we lose our life in order to save it.
Imagine my pleasant surprise when I actually began to study the real Jesus, the one in Scriptures. He was nothing like the thin little will-o'-wisp of a man I had been taught. He was a vigorous leader, a man among men. Someone who was formidable and commanding of respect. Someone I could look up to.
While I can appreciate the desire to present Christ as a masculine role model, I fear we may be shifting too far in the opposite direction. In correcting the misimpression of “nice Jesus” we have shifted to an equally erroneous impression of “pugilistic Jesus.” For instance, the novel In His Steps—the best-seller written in 1897 that inspired the “What Would Jesus Do?” phenomenon—convinced generations of Christians that Jesus would oppose the sport of boxing. Today, however, we have churches using mixed martial arts (MMA) as ministries to attract young men. Instead of wearing the effeminate “WWJD?” bracelets, they wear t-shirts emblazoned with “Jesus Didn't Tap”—a reference to yielding to one’s opponent in a combat sports.
Although well-intended, these ministries that focus on “ultimate fighters” are giving young men a deformed view of Biblical masculinity. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus praised the “meek”, a word that in the Greek is used in reference to a “tame” wild animal. The lion is able to lay down with the lamb precisely because he is not given over to his hyper-aggressive nature.
Indeed, when Jesus talks about his followers he often refers to them as “sheep”—creatures that aren’t known for their ferocity. It is difficult to square the Good Shepherd of the Gospels with the hyper-masculine ideal of the cagefighter. And it takes an incredible leap of logic to conclude that since Jesus was a carpenter he would have enjoyed watching Christian men kick and beat each other until one is forced to “tap out.” Whether such a sport is morally licit is debatable. But it seems obvious this isn't the type of submission that Jesus is calling us to.
The real concern, though, isn’t that we are going to raise a generation that wants to trade blows in the octagon, but rather that we are encouraging an attitude of aggression and pugilism that carries over into our churches, homes, and communities. As theologian Russell Moore recently noted,
For some time now I’ve been concerned that Christians are not paying serious enough attention to a temptation the apostles warn against constantly. That temptation is “pugilism” or “quarrelsomeness.” It is, you might say, the draw toward hyper-masculinity, in which assertion and aggression itself is defined as “manhood.” You can see that in everything from Hip-Hop lyrics to some evangelical sermons about Jesus.
And, man, is it dangerous.
Our society is desperate to find the balance that only Biblical manhood can provide. Until we do, we are likely to swing back from one misguided view of masculinity to another. For example, during the early 1990s, “wildman” retreats were all the rage as a way for men to get in touch with their mannishness. Men would head to the wilderness take off their shirts, beat on West African drums, and bond with each other.
While we may laugh at such goofy behavior, the latest neo-testosterone movement within Christian circles isn’t all that different. We’ve simply replaced the mythopoetic “Iron John” with a mythic “Iron Jesus.” But young men don’t need a Jesus who strolls like the Duke, squints like Clint Eastwood, and snarls like Dick Cheney. They don't need Jesus the cagefighter, they just need Jesus the Savior.
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
USA Today, At nation's churches, guys are few in the pews
Msgr. Charles Pope, Jesus Was was no “Girlie-man.”
Russell Moore, “A Boy Named Sue,” by Johnny Cash
Andrew Walker, Jesus is a Warrior, But Not a Cagefighter
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