"Manliness is next to godliness," ran the Los Angeles Times headline on December 7. The article examines "a contrarian movement gaining momentum on the fringes of Christianity" that rebels against what the Times calls the "feminization of mainline churches": the frilly décor, the effeminate hand-holding, the strummy ballads.

The article’s main example of the movement is an all-male retreat series called GodMen, which encourages its participants to swear, assert themselves, and leave the toilet seat up, all in the name of following that manly man Jesus. A professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota insists that Jesus has "been domesticated. He’s portrayed now as gentle, loving, kind, rather than as a full-bodied person who kicked over tables in the temple, spent forty days in the wilderness wrestling with his identity and with God, hung out with the guys in the street. The rough-hewn edges and courage . . . got lopped off." One popular Christian writer wrote a book about this called Jesus Mean and Wild .

Well, yes, Jesus did kick over the tables in the temple and hang out with the guys in the street. He could be something like mean and wild. "Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword." But he was also gentle, loving, and kind: the Lamb of God who drew little children to him and washed the feet of his disciples.

Doesn’t the view of the Luther Seminary professor seem . . . incomplete? Look at the husband, described by the Times , who has been inspired by the movement to reclaim his Christian manliness. He "takes off, alone, on a weekend camping trip a few weeks after the GodMen conference this fall." His wife told him she was "a little bit leery of it, as we have an infant . . . . She said, ‘I need your help around here.’" But "I am supposed to be the leader of the family," he declared, and off he went to the woods.

Agnieszka Tennant recently reported in Christianity Today about another trend in popular Christian devotion. This one is often called "Jesus Is My Boyfriend," after a style of breathy Christian pop, the subject of which could be Jesus or a boyfriend, without losing much in the switch.

Tennant quotes a popular author who urges women to dress up for their dates with Jesus: "Although God certainly loves us even with unshaven legs, no makeup, and a bed-head hairdo, he also deserves to occasionally have his princess sit at his feet while she is looking and feeling her best."

I’m all for good grooming¯cleanliness is next to godliness!¯but the notion that Christ suffers when we forget our lipstick is a little peculiar. Here’s another line from the same author: "You are running away with your Lover, not confining yourself to a convent." Ah. Jesus as the bad boy in a chick-lit novel.

It’s mockable¯and yet all such movements are trying to react against the bad and seek the good. The Jesus Mean and Wild men are confronting a serious problem. Many Christians are frustrated by the Christianity presented to them: too polite, too sunny, too nice to help them in their struggles. GodMen uses the straight-talking, guns-blazing atmosphere of its meetings to help its participants deal with sexual temptation and sin.

Meanwhile, the Jesus Is My Boyfriend contingent, seeking a deeper relation with Christ, is echoing a millennia-old spirituality that uses the language of sexual desire to express the soul’s longing for God. You can find it in the Song of Songs, Catherine of Siena, and John Donne, in Paul, Teresa of Àvila, and Thérèse of Lisieux. Or try "Songs of the Soul in Intimate Amorous Communion with God," from John of the Cross:

How tenderly you love me and conjure in my breast¯ that secret place where you alone are treasured¯ how¯your sweet breath above me¯ by heaven’s good possessed¯ with what rare lover’s skill have I been pleasured!

Still, it’s a long stretch from the spiritual eroticism of John of the Cross to the cuddly boyfriend of the new movement, just as it’s a long stretch from the biblical picture of Jesus smashing the moneychangers’ tables to the modern picture of Jesus as Iron John.

The aim of meditating on Christ is to know him and love him¯all of him: the judge, the spouse, the brother, the child, the friend, the king, the shepherd. The aim of imitating Christ is to become like him. There are no shortcuts. Slogans, self-help books, rallies, makeovers¯these will not substitute for worship of Christ, not as we might like him to be, but as he is.

Mary Angelita Ruiz is an assistant editor at First Things .


Daniel Dennett thinks that religion is a natural phenomenon. David Hart thinks that Daniel Dennett is something of a phenomenon, too, albeit an unnatural one. In the January issue, Hart explores the positively fascinating tale of how Daniel Dennett bravely set off in pursuit of the great wild beast of Religion (having already unlocked the mysteries of human consciousness), armed with nothing but science, reason, and his Charles Darwin lunch-kit, and came back with a 464-page book explaining why your religion (whatever it may be) is wrong. For David Hart, the real question is: How do we explain Daniel Dennett? The answer is quite a lot of fun, but to read it you’ll have to check newsstand on or about December 15¯or better yet, subscribe today .

Articles by Mary Angelita Ruiz

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