My manly bona fides: I 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 semi-conclusive 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 always 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 muliebral. I’m not too concerned about myself since I’m old (44) and secure about my place on the manliness scale. But I am worried about the 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 percent 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 in evangelical churches. The result is a series of men-centric initiatives that are presumably endorsed by the manliest man of them all—Jesus!
During 1960s and 1970s, when the ideal of masculinity was in flux, Christ was portrayed as a sensitive, pacifistic, Phil Donahue-style guru (think “hippie Jesus”). Nowadays, as a direct reaction to that cultural appropriation, the new focus is on a rugged, blue collar, warrior Jesus. 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-Guy Jesus” we have shifted to an equally erroneous impression of “Pugilistic Jesus.”
The novel In His Steps—the best-seller written in 1897 that inspired the “What Would Jesus Do?”—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 sport.
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 Russell Moore has 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 Jason Statham. They don’t need Jesus the cagefighter, they just need Jesus the Savior.