catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 15 :: 2009.07.17 — 2009.07.30


The impossibility of the nice Christian guy

Like every congregation in town, our church has more women than men.  So it’s significant that once a year we hold Carnivore Night, a men-only event in which we celebrate the good gifts of red meat and dudehood.  We build custom paper airplanes and hock loogies.  We tell PG-13 jokes and growl amens at the end of prayers.  “You know what I love about this night?” asks one man, throwing a steak the size of his head on the grill.  “We don’t have to behave here.”

If you haven’t noticed, the new four-letter word among evangelical men is “nice.”  Never ever call one of them nice, unless you want to come across as that matronly Sunday school teacher who pats a child on the head and says, “Now be a good boy.” 

John Eldredge seems to be the one immediately responsible for the knee-jerk reaction against civility.  In his book Wild at Heart (2001), he claims that churches have abdicated their responsibility to preach to men the life abundant, substituting in its place something safe and domesticated and, well, nice.  Niceness respects other people, doesn’t cause a splash, keeps still during the sermon.  “Today’s churchgoing man is humble, tidy, dutiful, and above all, nice,” writes a sympathetic David Murrow in Why Men Hate Going to Church (2004).  But a number of men are getting very pissed off about it, and very committed to changing the situation.  Yea verily, what does it profit a man to gain the whole church and yet forfeit his testicles?

It seems unprecedented, but the quest to regain a wild, manly spirituality is actually nothing new.  I find it intriguing that men in the Church were saying basically the same thing well over a century ago.  Guys have long been uncomfortable with civility in the church, but I want to suggest that there are reasons for this, something more tangible than the kind of obscure feministic, feminizing conspiracy hinted at by Eldredge and Murrow.  Putting the issue in a broader historical context can help make sense out of the recent phobic response to niceness.


Muscular Christianity

The idea of manhood in America underwent dramatic change in the 1800s.  While sex roles were distinguished already in the colonial era and nascent republic, the Industrial Revolution exaggerated them by taking men out of the homes and into the offices and factories.  Increasingly men played the role of breadwinner, politico and soldier (the public sphere), while women tended to home, education and morality (the private sphere).  Ideally, self-made men became masters of the external realm, whether that be the frontier, the battle lines or the entrepreneurial ladder.  Home and hearth they left behind.

Men left religion, too.  Or, rather, religion left their realm.  America experienced a privatization of religion after the Enlightenment, and more liberal strains of Christianity adopted the thinking of the likes of Immanuel Kant and Albrecht Ritschl, who redefined and reduced Christianity to ethical considerations.  Along a parallel track, burgeoning Romanticism sought to understand the essence of religion as transcendental feeling.  By the end of the 19th century, a large percentage of middle-class churches were conceiving the faith as something private, moral and sentimental. 

American culture had defined femininity in the same way.  Responsible for the home men had left behind, women were supposed to be quintessentially caring and good, emotional and intuitive.  They naturally took up the mantle of religion, which was civilized and domesticated enough to fit their job description.  They were the ones to instruct children, inculcate religious emotion and provide a holy and safe sanctuary away from the dark goings-on of the marketplace.

My point is this.  In the Victorian era, like never before, religion was confined to the same corner as women.  Religiosity fell entirely within the woman’s sphere, as evidenced by the innumerable saccharine hymns and effeminate portraits of Jesus.  How could a man possibly straddle a rough-and-tumble public arena and a milquetoast place of worship?

It should come as no surprise that men vacated churches during this time.  Stepping into a church meant compromising one’s masculinity.  Interestingly, sporting clubs and fraternal lodges underwent a massive boom at the same time.  I believe many of the spiritual overtones of athletics and fraternal organizations can be felt to this day because Victorian era men, no longer comfortable in church, chose to express their spirituality by these other means.  

It also should come as no surprise that many Christian guys refused to be exiled from their own churches.  In a loose movement called Muscular Christianity (roughly 1880-1920), men sought to recast religion as a manly pursuit.  One part athleticism, one part nationalism, one part spirituality, Muscular Christians railed against pallid churches and their feminized clergy.  “Jesus was the greatest scrapper that ever lived,” shouted baseballer-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday, making sure his audience knew that the Savior “was no dough-faced, lick-spittle proposition.” Anyone who would follow Christ had to attain physical toughness and spiritual rigor. 

In order to combat “overcivilization,” Muscular Christianity sought to foster and channel boys’ energy into constructive forms through new organizations such as the YMCA and the Boy Scouts of America.  By marrying athletics and wilderness to religion, a re-masculinized religion could hope to deliver America not just from its sins but also from its languor.  Men and Religion Forward (1910-12), the first men’s movement in America, gathered 1.5 million attendees to hear a “manly gospel,” urging them to evangelize and effect social change in church and society with a rational, business-like determination.  Historian Gail Bederman has shown how men of this era worked overtime to re-conceptualize what it meant to be civilized, claiming for themselves an inner Tarzan who, despite his noble status, still has the jungle running through his veins.

Muscular Christianity wasn’t nearly so much of a protest against Victorianism as it thought it was.  Sure, it sought a more masculine, virile form of religion, but it presupposed the hard distinctions between the masculine and the feminine adopted by the dominant culture.  Womanly religion is emotional, private, receptive, homey; manly religion is rational, public, assertive and a barely restrained wildness.  But Muscular Christians were still all about civility and order, which isn’t all that much of a remove from domesticity.  It leaves one within the gravitational pull of niceness.


Still wild at heart

Jump forward a hundred years and everything has changed and nothing has changed.  The computer age has threatened to over-civilize us.  The heyday of skilled labor long past, we live our little existences in cubicles staring at screensavers and worrying about our 401k’s.  We go home to a wife and 2.5 kids, maybe manicure our lawns on Saturday.  We arrive at church the next day and sip our premium lattes, sing sentimental songs and get told to be more loving people.  Tame.  Tame to the core. 

If you’re a woman, this churchly lifestyle doesn’t pose nearly the threat it does to a man.  Women are allowed, even expected, to be kind and soft and receptive to Jesus.  Men live this out at the risk of being, well, unmanned.

Promise Keepers, momentous as it was through the 1990s, really didn’t really address the problem.  Sure, it held meetings in football stadiums and ratcheted up expectations.  It even made male emotion okay again, especially when singing “How Great Thou Art” with 40,000 other guys, or reconciling with one’s father.  But at the end of the day it was a call back to civilization.  One was told to keep promises to God and family and friends and the pastor, to be more responsible.  Responsibility can be a manly virtue, but the domestic orientation of Promise Keepers felt more like a summons to Father Knows Best than Call of the Wild

It was only a matter of time before the male id burst out again.  Mark Driscoll started fuming about dandy-ized ministers and their effeminate flock.  David Murrow began calling for a renewed patriarchy.  Rough-edged groups like the Samson Society and BattleZONE popped up to grapple with their souls.  And a whole lot of Christian men started getting in touch with the beast within — not to tame it so much as to ride it rodeo-style for the Almighty.

John Eldredge remains the most interesting of the lot.  An ex-employee of Focus on the Family, Eldredge has called men to something much like Muscular Christianity — a mix of naturalism, mystical spirituality and pop mythology.  He claims that every man has inside him a William Wallace with a three-fold destiny: an adventure to live, a beauty to rescue and a battle to fight.  Every man is wild at heart, and needn’t apologize for such incivility.  God planted it.  In fact, it’s the manly image of God. 

I’m not sure Eldredge or his followers are aware of how much his model is a faded carbon copy of the mythopoetic movement of the 1980s and 90s.  The mythopoets sought to retake and reshape masculinity through storytelling and kinetic activity and group therapy, usually in a natural setting.  At the front of the movement was Robert Bly, whose Iron John (1990) pretty much single-handedly codified “the wildman” as an archetype of the male soul.  The mythopoets were pretty New Age-y, so only a handful of evangelicals co-opted the ideas for Christian use at the time (one being Gordon Dalbey, who influenced Eldredge, I wager).  Not long after the mythopoetic movement submerged, the Wild at Heart phenomenon lurked out of the lake.  Eldredge’s talk of epic adventures, introspection and psychological archetypes, especially in The Way of the Wild Heart (2006), is a page right out of his mythopoetic forebears’ manual.

Not that I’m opposed wholeheartedly to all Eldredge teaches.  Certainly men should discover that God loves them in their distinctiveness, and that one doesn’t have to neglect his animus just because he follows Christ.  Wildness has its place.  But the kind of natural-theology-gone-to-seed invoked by Eldredge, aside from marginalizing scripture, feels more like a justification of the primal male psyche rather than a quest for what redeemed manhood might look like in Christ. 


Civilized religion

One point I’m making is how a hard dualism between femininity and masculinity is always injurious to Christians.  As long as women alone are allocated the private sphere and deemed to be more spiritual (read: moral and tame), men cannot seek God without appearing effeminate.  They lose out.  Or, when a movement like Muscular Christianity or Wild Christianity asserts that real spirituality is ruggedly masculine, women end up looking like wet blankets or, worse yet, pseudo-spiritual.  If they fulfill the niceness imperative, they lead an inferior spiritual life; if they dare go wild, they seek loftier things at the expense of their womanhood. 

But what I’m concerned with here is the way Christianity, by being equated with morality, has been quarantined to the same marginalized category as femininity.  Faith in Jesus Christ, instead of being seen as a radical and total call to discipleship, has too often been designated a behavioral prop.  Religious commitment is understood as equivalent to being a pleasant human being, a domesticated member of society.  And, mark my words, churches that become the vehicle of secular mores are almost always in decline because they are already part and parcel of the social fabric of the world.  Standing only as a bastion of political correctness and wishful idealism, they are already redundant.  More pointedly: being “nice” signals not allegiance to Christ, but treason against him.

This is what wild men (and wild women!) should recoil against.  Masculinity isn’t the only thing on the line when churches bend the knee to civilization.  Their very identity as Christian churches is in jeopardy.  Returning to nature and watching Gladiator a hundred times isn’t going to help, I’m afraid.  Deliverance from niceness will require something far more radical: a death-and-resurrection kind of encounter with the living God.

Not to say that this encounter won’t happen around a grill.  It probably will if the gospel of Jesus Christ is being preached there.  By itself, searing inch-and-a-half-thick pork chops over charcoal may not deliver one from niceness.  But it certainly doesn’t hurt.

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