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Mar 05 2007

Macho Christianity

It had to happen some time. I have written before about how most people’s knowledge of the Bible is a CliffsNotes version, just the sketchiest of outlines of what is says. This is convenient because it enables each group or individual within Christianity and Judaism to pretty much adopt any lifestyle and morals and values and claim that it is how god would want them to live.

But in actual practice there are some restrictions. In contemporary America, there has grown up the consensus that to be a religious means at the very least avoiding drunkenness and profanity and promiscuous sex. Dressing nicely, going to church on Sundays, being polite and nice to others, and shaking hands with strangers in the pews are highly recommended. This has to be limiting to people who like to think of themselves as ‘real’ men and want to drink and swear and run around but still want to be considered Christian. Such people are worried that Christianity is becoming a religion for wusses.

But not to worry. If there is one thing that capitalism has taught us, it is that if there is enough of a market for something, then that need will be filled. And a January 12, 2007 article in the Los Angeles Times titled Manliness in next to Godliness suggests that a new movement for unwussy Christianity has appeared that says that exhibitions of raw testosterone are completely compatible with the Bible. Here’s a description of a church service for this new manly religion. (I give an extended quote so that you get the full flavor.)

The strobe lights pulse and the air vibrates to a killer rock beat. Giant screens show mayhem and gross-out pranks: a car wreck, a sucker punch, a flabby (and naked) rear end, sealed with duct tape.

Brad Stine runs onstage in ripped blue jeans, his shirt untucked, his long hair shaggy…”It’s the wuss-ification of America that’s getting us!” screeches Stine, 46.

A moment later he adds a fervent: “Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!”

In daybreak fraternity meetings and weekend paintball wars, in wilderness retreats and X-rated chats about lust, thousands of Christian men are reaching for more forceful, more rugged expressions of their faith.

Stine’s daylong revival meeting, which he calls “GodMen,” is cruder than most. But it’s built around the same theory as the other experimental forums: Traditional church worship is emasculating.

Hold hands with strangers? Sing love songs to Jesus? No wonder pews across America hold far more women than men, Stine says. Factor in the pressure to be a “Christian nice guy” — no cussing, no confrontation, in tune with the wife’s emotions — and it’s amazing men keep the faith at all.

“We know men are uncomfortable in church,” says the Rev. Kraig Wall, 52, who pastors a small church in Franklin, Tenn. — and is at GodMen to research ways to reach the husbands of his congregation. His conclusion: “The syrup and the sticky stuff is holding us down.” John Eldredge, a seminal writer for the movement, goes further in “Wild At Heart,” his bestselling book. “Christianity, as it currently exists, has done some terrible things to men,” he writes. Men “believe that God put them on earth to be a good boy.” (my italics)

Says Christian radio host Paul Coughlin, author of “No More Christian Nice Guy”: “The idea of Jesus as meek and mild is as fictitious as anything in Dan Brown’s `Da Vinci Code.’ “

So what’s with the standard portraits of Jesus: pale face, beatific smile, lapful of lambs?

“He’s been domesticated,” says Roland Martinson, a professor of ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. “He’s portrayed now as gentle, loving, kind, rather than as a full-bodied person who kicked over tables in the temple, spent 40 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.”

Stine’s wife, Desiree, says she supports manly leadership; it seems to her the natural and God-ordained order of things. As she puts it: “When the rubber hits the bat, I want to know my husband will protect me.”

But some men at the conference run into trouble when they debut their new attitudes at home. Eric Miller, a construction worker, admits his wife is none too pleased when he takes off, alone, on a weekend camping trip a few weeks after the GodMen conference this fall.

“She was a little bit leery of it, as we have an infant,” he reports. “She said, `I need your help around here.’ “

Miller, 26, refuses to yield: “I am supposed to be the leader of the family.”
. . .
The virility crusade is, in part, a response to a stark gender gap. More than 60 percent of the adults at a typical worship service are women. That translates into 13 million more women than men in the pews on any given Sunday, according to David Murrow, author of “Why Men Hate Going to Church.”

Women are also significantly more likely than men to attend Sunday school, read the Bible and pray regularly, according to the Barna Group, a Christian polling firm.

Murrow blames men’s lackluster attitude on the feminization of mainline churches: “Lace curtains. Quilted banners on the wall. Pink carpet. Fresh flowers at the podium.”

Even in evangelical mega-churches, which tend to use more neutral decor, the mood is hardly alpha male. Dancers wave flowing banners as the choir sings. TV screens glow with images of flowers and sunsets
. . .
Stine argues that the genteel facade of a Christian nice guy inhibits introspection and substitutes cliches for spiritual growth. GodMen is his attempt to encourage men to get real. His speakers admit to masturbation and adultery. Such honesty, Stine contends, molds better, more godly men than a typical Sunday service.

“We want to force you out of the safe places that have passed for spirituality,” Stine says. “Maybe worship could be hanging out with a bunch of guys, admitting we like blowing crap up.”

I have to thank the ever-vigilant Jesus’ General for alerting me to this trend. The good General, whose blog proudly claims that he is an “11 on the manly scale of absolute gender,” is always ahead of the curve when it comes to manly expressions of Christianity.

I wanted to end this post on a very manly note and what could be more appropriate than the Village People singing their hit Macho Man?

19 comments

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  1. 1
    melinda

    First, thank you. I needed some Village People to start my work week with.

    Second, I find a disturbing subtext in this whole thing- contempt for things that are feminine. It’s not so much the “reclaiming masculinity” that I find reprehensible here (though I question the inherent masculinity of duct-taping someone’s cheeks together); it’s the fact that it’s being framed in terms of how women and things that are feminine are bad. Or in terms of how things that are not overtly fitting masculine stereotypes are bad (“our church doesn’t feature diesel engines!? what are they trying to do, turn us into WOMEN!?”)

    Honestly, it smells like backlash against feminism to me. Which I find confusing, because I have never gone to church, and churches don’t strike me as terribly feminist institutions, or even feminine ones for that matter.

    Also, from what I’ve heard about Jesus, he did seem pretty hardcore. Surviving whippings, standing up to crowds of people who are about to throw stones at a helpless person, all that kind of thing. Why can’t someone do things like that and be kind? I feel like something else is going on here.

  2. 2
    bob

    Melinda,

    As a lifelong Christian myself, I can definitely say that churches typically do have a very feminine outlook. This is just an observation, not a value judgement about women, but often it is the women that get involved in religion and encourage their husbands/boyfriends/fathers/brothers to come to church. Often women seem to be more interested in exploring their spiritual side.

    Mano,

    I’m not sure what I think about the whole unwussy Christianity movement, but I do like your comment about

    “…each group or individual within Christianity and Judaism to pretty much adopt any lifestyle and morals and values and claim that it is how god would want them to live.”

    This attitude really bothers me, mostly because there are so many things that the American evangelical church has decided are ‘sins’, but there is little precdent in the Bible for. Things like drugs, tobacco, dancing, movies, alcohol, profanity, music, clothing, etc… Meanwhile they ignore things like gluttony, pride, envy and greed. Many church going people have the attitude that as long as your skirt is the right length and you don’t drink a beer it is totally fine to gossip, lie and cheat – a position I find particularly disturbing.

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    Bob,

    Your comment reminded me of an incident back in my Methodist Church in Sri Lanka. Our minister and his wife had danced at the wedding of one of the parishioners which the minister had officiated. For this he was upbraided by one of the church lay bigwigs because dancing was officially frowned on by the Methodist Church.

    The irony is that the minister and his wife were much beloved by the congregation because they were such good, caring people while the bigwig was almost universally detested as being a pompous prig who displayed very little of Christian charity in his dealings with others.

  4. 4
    Mano Singham

    Melinda,

    I definitely agree that there is a strong strain of misogyny being displayed here. What is interesting (to me at least) is the desire of these men to have the Christian “seal of approval” to do what they want to do. To me, this shows the power of religion.

  5. 5
    Robert

    “I have to thank the ever-vigilant Jesus’ General for alerting me to this trend.”

    I’m not sure this qualifies as a trend.

    Calling these types of people ‘Christians’ is like calling those that sell snake oil ‘doctors.’ There is no noble cause here.

  6. 6
    bob

    Mano,

    That’s EXACTLY the kind of thing I’m talking about. It doesn’t sound like the minister was routinely doing the lambada with a local prostitute, he was dancing with his WIFE at a wedding. I have seen that type of activity more times than I can remember.

    In fact, recently, I was walking in to church with my sister (who is happily married with a child) and the ‘greeter’, an older woman who we didn’t even know, remarked on how her dress should ‘only be worn after 5′. The skirt may have been close to the knee, but it wasn’t anything that most people would object to.

    The Gospels are full of stories about Christ turning water into wine, associating with unsavory types of people and ridiculing the religious authorities of his day. Now the supposedly ‘pious’ people use Christianity to condemn activites that Christ himself quite likely would have participated in. Gives a whole new twist to the whole WWJD thing…

  7. 7
    Ben

    Mano,

    I think this “Macho Christian”…I don’t know whether I’d call it a trend–maybe idea–is actually part of a larger phenomenon within contemporary American culture. In both a Sociology class on culture I took and a Psych class on Sexual Behavior, we ended up discussing gender roles frequently. One thing that came up in both was the idea that masculinity in America is in crisis–traditional male roles are disappearing or being adopted by women…so what do men do?

    I actually at one point watched a video on the subject, where the filmmaker made the argument that the increasing popularity of Wrestling, shows like Jackass, escalating violence in Videogames and Music, are all a result of this loss of identity and are symptoms of the attempt to reclaim it.

    I think Melinda’s point about a backlash is in a way correct; women have prepared themselves for an environment where gender roles are more flexible, where they can have a career and be assertive; men have not. It’s sort of like Pepsi and Coke: Coke never says “We’re better than Pepsi” because they’re on top. Pepsi has to define itself in relation to Coke though, and so they have taste tests, licensing deals, et cetera. At the end of the day, males have been the leaders for the past thousand years or so, and now that men have to define themselves in a relative fashion they have grown angry about it, and are searching for a way to recapture what they feel they have lost.

    Someone along the way proposed the idea Masculinism as a counter to feminism, where men can define themselves relative to women, allow for flexibility of gender roles, and still retain their identity as men. I think male values have a place, values like Loyalty, Honor, Protection of those who cannot protect themselves, and the like. Unfortunately, I think things will get a lot worse before men in America accept that things are, and must be different than they were for their fathers, but that that does not mean we must lose ourselves in mindless indulgences and hedonistic anarchy in the process.

  8. 8
    Greg L.

    Mano,

    I’m of mixed feelings on this topic. I can certainly see where people are coming from when they talk about a feminine streak in most churches, with handholding and flowers and all that. But I have to say that I, a lifelong Methodist myself (and son of a Methodist pastor to boot), have never really thought about it much. My biggest problems in getting to church are the fact that it’s early on a Sunday morning (which is hardly a gender issue), and that I have to dress up to go, which I do extremely rarely to any large degree. But that’s not a gender issue either.

    I see no reason why religion and relgious worship should be inherently at odds with “masculinity,” however one cares to define it. If the men in the story think that their masculinity is threatened, I personally have no qualm with them worshipping in a way that makes them feel masculine, so long as their religious intentions are pure. If they want to dispense with the “thou”s and “thee”s, no problem. A bit of profanity here and there is probably harmless, I think: I don’t believe that profanity and religion are at all linked, although I realize I’m in the minority here. As long as they’re not bashing women for allegedly making church girly (or bashing any group for anything), I don’t see an issue.

    I have a hunch that men who are so concerned with being masculine that they’ll set up their own church for it are probably among the least-secure men around. But as long as they really mean to worship the God they believe in and follow the Bible they claim to believe in, I’m not going to say that they’re out of line.

  9. 9
    Mano Singham

    This is a very interesting discussion about masculinity, a topic I’ve not really thought about that much.

    There are things that I do not do because they are not things that men typically do but they are pretty obvious things, like wearing dresses or putting on lipstick.

    It never made sense to me that drinking and swearing and riding a Harley-Davidson and the like were symbols of masculinity. To me, they were just things that some people (both men and women) liked to do and others did not, that’s all.

    Ben’s comment about masculinism being a kind of response to feminism is intriguing and worth following up but the stuff about “loyalty and honor and protecting those who cannot protect themselves” seem to me to be desirable human values and I do not see why men should feel that they apply specially to them. Wouldn’t we want women to also have these qualities?

  10. 10
    Rian

    One thing that hasn’t been addressed is whether this ‘masculinization’ of Christianity is a cause or a symptom of the current militant trends in American Christianity. What, after all, is more ‘masculine’ than in Arlo Guthrie’s words: ‘blood, guts, gore, ‘n veins in m’teeth.’? It’s liable to be difficult to gear a population up to support wars if you’re trying to teach peace and love to a bunch of women, but it’s nowhere near as hard when you can say that Jesus acted like Rambo and wandered around being a bad-ass.

    On a lighter note, the image of you riding a Harley-Davidson and/or being inebriated caused peals of laughter :). “Biker guy, biker guy, biker guy… Professor Singham?!”

  11. 11
    Mano Singham

    Rian,

    Actually, your comment is not far off. I don’t drink as a rule, except for the very, very rare wine or beer, because I am not very fond of the taste of alcohol.

    But in Sri Lanka, where men tend to drink heavily, I used to have to put up with some occasional teasing about drinking “ladies drinks” when I would ask for a pop/soda.

    Of course, being the kind of argumentative pest I am, I would use this to ask the teasers why they they were so insecure about their own masculinity that they felt they had to prove it to others by drinking alcohol.

  12. 12
    melinda

    “loyalty and honor and protecting those who cannot protect themselves” seem to me to be desirable human values and I do not see why men should feel that they apply specially to them. Wouldn’t we want women to also have these qualities?

    Thank you for saying that. I find that I have very little time for strictly proscribed sex roles, because, as Ben pointed out, they’re quite restrictive. I think that both stereotypically male and female roles are equally ridiculous, but there’s one big difference between them: traditionally, the male role has all the power. So anything “female” gets associated with powerlessness. I’m sure you all see where that one ends up.

    Anyone who wants to do things outside these strict roles can’t win in the eyes of a person who wants everyone to adhere to them, and as a woman who is in a male-dominated field, I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of crap for it. Perhaps men want to be ‘church people’ but aren’t secure enough in their masculinity to do it in a way that doesn’t involve chest hair and beer… maybe it’s a case of protesting too much.

    Bob, I feel like the people in the church you’re talking about need some better hobbies… ;-)

  13. 13
    melinda

    And, of course, by “men” in my above comment, I meant the men in the article, not all men.

    Also, I’ve never ridden a motorcycle, but I am prone to drinking and swearing on occasion. However, I find that both of those things are more fun while wearing lipstick.

  14. 14
    Jonathan

    So do I.

  15. 15
    Jeffrey Quick

    I enjoyed your point about people largely creating their own religion. I think that’s far less true of evangelicals than it is of some other religions (Wicca, my own religion, for instance) and even the old mainline churches, because they take their Biblical anchor seriously. The charge of Bible ignorance is a standard canard among atheists, but it also doesn’t match what I’ve seen of evangelicals; it’s really hard to believe that the Bible is the Word of God and still not have any interest in what it says.
    As for men and Christianity, there’s room for all styles of worship, but it strikes me that this wild man stuff is a distraction. Jesus showed them how to be a man. They may not be “man enough” to follow Him in all regards (“the few, the proud…the saints”), but the pattern is there. It’s harder for women, because Jesus is still the pattern, but it’s not gender-specific (or rather, specific in the wrong way). There’s Mary, but she’s gotten wussified too. I personally believe (because I wouldn’t wish to worship a God who would enter into a contract without revealing the fine print) that Mary saw the whole setup before she said, “Be it unto me according to Thy word”. To say “Yes” to bearing a child, knowing that child would be tortured to death in front of you…that takes guts.

  16. 16
    Mano Singham

    I have lived among evangelicals and my experience is different. Although lay fundamentalists know and will quote selected Biblical passages (e.g. John 3:16) that reinforce a certain viewpoint, they tend to be unaware of most of the rest (or deliberately ignore it, which would be worse) or the history of how the Bible came to be. When you quote counter-passages that challenge what they think the Bible says, they tend to be either surprised or flummoxed.

    It is usually the liberal Christian traditions who have a broader and deeper knowledge of the Bible. Whether it is this broader knowledge that makes them liberal, or whether being liberal makes you seek a broader knowledge, I cannot say.

  17. 17
    Michael Hicks

    This is an interesting point about liberal Christianity being correlated with Biblical knowledge. I don’t suspect many would consider Catholicism a liberal wing of Christianity, but it is deeply rooted in the Bible. If you look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, nearly every tenet or principle cited therein is accompanied by Biblical references. All Masses proclaim at least three texts (old testament, psalm, and gospel) and sometimes four (an added epistle on Sundays). Nearly the entire Bible is read during Church services over the course of the three year cycle.

    I’ve found it interesting that in some areas Catholics are strongly tied to Evangelicals, most notably in opposition to abortion and homosexuality as a lifestyle, but in others they are strongly opposed, such as in a literal/non-literal reading of the Bible and the importance/non-importance of communion.

    In terms of the current discussion of masculinity/non-masculinity of Christianity, the history of the church offers many examples of masculine values that are highly regarded. “Giving one’s life for one’s friends” immediately comes to mind: putting the interests of another over yourself, even if you must submit yourself to violence. When I hear of Father Maximilian Kolbe volunteering to be executed by starvation in a concentration camp so that the man who would have otherwise been executed might live, I think “that’s REAL manliness.”

  18. 18
    Mano Singham

    Michael,

    Catholics are an interesting group. Although not popularly considered ‘liberal’ they are a complex mix, ranging from very progressive to very conservative.

    When it comes to Biblical knowledge, they are again bimodal, with some very knowledgeable clergy (like the Jesuists) and some pretty ignorant laity. I have been to the Catholic church many years and my children went to Catholic Sunday School and what surprised me was how little they actually studied the Bible.

    While elements of the liturgy may be based on the Bible, people do not study the Bible as such in any depth. Even if they spend five minutes a Sunday on selected readings, over three years it only works out to about 12 hours. I estimate that that would only allow for a small fraction of the Bible (less than 20%) to be covered and that is where the selectivity comes in. I doubt that they read the detailed lists of prohibitions listed in Leviticus, and it just these details that cause problems for the modern person.

  19. 19
    WebCoach

    The future apostle Peter didn’t seem so “feminine” when the guards were arresting Jesus. The Bible says he pulled out his sword and cut the ear off of one of the guards.

    The image of the disciples carrying swords is not an image most of us have been taught over the years.

    http://www.christianlifecoaching.com

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