O Brother, Why Aren’t Thou in Church?

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on March 26, 2007. It was also featured on UPI’s mainpage.

For the last twenty years Americans have recognized March as women’s history month, and it seems important not to let this month slip away without acknowledging and addressing the misogyny that lingers in the Christian Church, particularly among the growing movement of evangelical men who blame the paucity of male pew sitters upon the feminization of the Church.

There are several groups and gurus traveling across the contemporary American spiritual landscape preaching a gospel for men; books in the movement’s canon include such titles as Wild at Heart by John Eldridge, The Church Impotent, by Leon J. Podles, No More Christian Nice Guy, and Why Men Hate Going To Church but the message always seems to be about the same: American men don’t come to church because church doesn’t cater to masculine instincts and proclivities. Women have too much influence over the life of congregations. Even though the overwhelming majority of church leaders are men, they—we—are wimps who present Jesus as a soft, effete quiche-eater who’d rather bless children and sit around talking with women than, say, arm wrestle.

The Jesus of this new masculine Christianity is “wild and manly,” a warrior-king, an adventurer, a real man’s man, and the secret to getting men into the church, according to churchformen.com, a website run by the undoubtedly burly David Murrow is to build churches that incorporate “adventure, challenge, boldness, competition, hands-on communication, ferocity and fun” into the Christian life. “One of the greatest mistakes in Christian History,” according to godmen.org, “is the creation of ‘nice’ Christian men.”

Please.

I have to confess that the first thing that comes to my mind every time I hear someone say that the church is too feminine is the inescapable fact that the most recognizable architectural feature of Western churches is the steeple. Don’t these people read Freud?

And don’t they read the Bible? Where in the name of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, did they come up with the idea that Jesus was a wild man and a warrior? There’s one story about Jesus kicking money changers out of the temple, but these are accountants we’re talking about here, not bouncers or the Jerusalem rugby squad. Other than that, Jesus’ sparing was all verbal—less quarterback and more captain of the debate club.

For an archtypal biblical warrior king and wild man who kicks (and chases) booty, David is a better character. Jesus pretty much taught people to love one another. He declared that the meek were blessed, as were peacemakers and the unjustly persecuted. He healed the sick and was kind to outcasts. He was a nice guy, and gentle too, mostly.

If the church, in trying to reflect the Jesus found in scripture, feels too feminine, then maybe the problem isn’t in the way we organize the church. Maybe the problem is in the ways we understand what it means to be a man.

In all of the myths and folk tales that help us to understand both the collective psyche and what it means to be fully realized humans, the masculine is incomplete until it joins with the feminine. Arthur has Guinevere. Beast has Beauty. The Frog becomes a prince only when kissed by a princess. The risen Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene. If the church is feminine, it will serve only to make men whole.

This isn’t to say that men and women shouldn’t, from time to time, gather in separate tribes to share stories, wisdom, secrets, and magic. Such times apart are both useful and fun, but when we stand before God we must do so together, made complete by the beauty of God’s image that is shared equally by women and men and that only is fully expressed when masculine and feminine are together.

I would love to see more men in church, but I have no interest in encouraging Christian men to shun gentleness and become wild warriors. Nor am I attracted to the idea that we should pretend Jesus was someone unlike the itinerant rabbi found in the Gospels. Moreover, I like to think that our society has evolved sufficiently that we no longer need to fear the influence of women or the feminine in the church or anywhere else.
http://www.art4god.com/bin/print/zoom/un_zoom.jpg

Is this the Jesus who will bring men back to the Church?

Check out more manly Jesus images by artist Stephed Sawyer at art4God.com.

16 thoughts on “O Brother, Why Aren’t Thou in Church?

  1. Ben:

    Why does everyone forget about the masculine symbols of MLK and Gandhi? No those two (and those like them) would not be followers of NASCAR. Yes, those two would be able to relate well with women. I see neither of them as wimps.

    You want more men in church, challenge us to quit hiding from justice and integrity. Challenge us to be strong and compassionate….and show us that there is a place for us in the church.

    — Jerry

  2. Thanks, Jerry.

    I like the challenge, but does one taylor toward men, or does one issue the challenge to the whole community? It seems to me that justice and integrity are important to women and men.

    And–if you feel comfortable grappling with this question in this forum–let me ask you what it would it look like for you to feel as if there was a place for you in church? (We can talk about this over dinner if you’d rather).

    Ben

  3. I very much liked the article: it is quite ironic that “manly” men feel that the church is overly feminized; just ask all the unemployed female pastors waiting for a call! Just ask all the women who are excluded from positions of authority/ power about the church being overly-feminine.I suspect that, if Jesus were around today, he would be kicking butt alright–the butts of these insecure males who are compelled to make Jesus in their image. Hmm…idolatry?
    I also liked Jerry’s response- I would simply reinforce what he said by saying: if anyone thinks that Gandhi didn’t have balls in taking on the British empire or MLK was not a strong person in fighting racism, injustice and oppression in the manner that he did…well, perhaps those folks need to revisit the Bible and contemplate the example set by Jesus…
    Thank you, Ben, for a well-thought out and provocative article.

  4. Ben:
    Boy are you gonna hear it from accountants. Don’t show this to your tax guy.
    Love the picture of Jesus “on the ropes.” To get wavy hair, that long and that manageable, I gotta know what product he uses… must be that pure nard.

  5. We now attend a church where there are more men than women. It is a new experience for us. It’s reminicent of seminary days when the chapel walls swelled with testosteronic hymn singing. The way the gender balance was challenged in our church was to put a sign on the door that said everyone is welcome. The gay community took us at our word and is now filling, once empty pews with young, male torsos that work out at Gold’s regularly. Our fellowship never looked so heathy It’s quite a renaisance for this staid old First Church; but as the neieghborhood goes, so should the church’s membership. We sing Fairest Lord Jesus with new meaning and gusto!

    Ronn

    P.S. Where do we order that robust and manly picture of Jesus on the ropes?

  6. Maybe because it’s Monday and I’m having a contrarian day, but I can’t get too excited about any of this. Ben, I think you’ve set up a straw man, then beat on it pretty effectively, but in the end it’s only a straw man.

    I have no doubt there are more women than men among the congregations of the mainline denominations, but there are more older members than younger members, too. And statistically, the ladies outlive us by a significant number of years. (A pastor and friend who had majored in mathmatics once said that if you projected the Presbyterian demographic line far enough, the denomination eventually would have one member, she would be about 130 years old, and she would be the richest person in the country!)

    The examples cited — the churchformen and godmen sites, to name two — seem more fringe and faddish than anything else. The godmen site brings to mind the “men’s movement” neurotics of 15-20 years ago who organized chants and drum circles out in the woods.

    Gene, I would agree, but only up to a point, about the courage of Gandhi and King. Remember that non-violent protest only works — indeed, only has a chance of working — in societies that are basically decent and at bottom driven by rule of law. Nonviolent protest was tried in the Soviet Union early on in the Stalin era. He had the protestors rounded up and shot, and that was the end of that. I also find it ironic that after the British ceded power, the first thing Gandhi did was formally outlaw nonviolent protest in India.

    For the record: I don’t consider myself a wimp, having boxed, wrestled and played football in my youth (and believe it, there are days now when my joints let me know about that kind of silliness 40-plus years on.) However, I do like quiche.

    Bill

  7. Thanks for the posts. My friend JJ (the Jerry posting above) introduced me to a website called 9Rules, upon which I asked the central question of this column, namely, would a manly Jesus attract more men to the church. One responder to the question on 9Rules made a good point, namely that making Jesus manly might repell the women and men already in church.

    Ronn’s post raises a similar issue: which men are we talking about? Do we only define masculinity as being embodied by the straight guy who likes to hunt and fish and watch football? What about the gay man who likes to hunt, fish, and watch football? What about the straight man who doesn’t have any interest in hunting, cannot catch a fish to save his life, and would rather cook a five course meal for ten people than watch a football game (this is me)? Men come in different varieties.

    The church that lifts up Ghandi and MLK as examples of what it means to be a man is the church I want to attend, in fact, the church that presents Ghandi and MLK as something less than masculine is bordering on heresey in my book.

    I like to think that the folks interested in bringing men back into the church might take a look at Ronn’s church to see what they’re doing right. But somehow I doubt it.

    Joey, next time I see you, I want a report on how the nard worked in your hair.

  8. Bill,

    I hope its a strawman. But the movement is selling enough books, and selling out enough conference tickets to make me think otherwise. History will judge. The Promise Keeper’s movement was hardly a small thing, tho it is smaller than once it was and it was a little bit different than the current incarnation of Muscular Christianity (Muscular Christianity, by the way, was an evangelical movement of a hundred years ago seems to be reincarnated in this contemporary men’s church movement).

    I’m interested in your assertion that Ghandi outlawed nonviolent protest after Indian independence. I spent some time doing a websearch and couldn’t find any mention of it. Can you point me to some reading on that bit of info?

    Cheers,

    Ben

  9. Ben, the comment re: Gandhi and prohibitions on nonviolent protest after the British left India comes from one of two (or possibly both) books by the late Saul Alinsky: Rollcall for Radicals, and Reveille for Radicals.

    Aside: for those who are not aware of it, Alinsky ws the founder of the Industial Areas Foundation training center, in Chicago, and was the prototypical mid-20th century community organizer. His principles, strategies and tactics are those currently used by community organizers throughout this land, and including, locally, those who intially started PACT (People Acting in Community Together), a church-based community organizing effort centered in East San Jose.

    Alinsky’s discussion of strategy and tactics basically comes to this: nonviolence is an extremely effective tactic in societies that are basically decent and governed by rule of law. It is a non-starter in societies that are not.

    MLK’s great technical contribution to community organizing was not in adopting selected Gandhi tactics, as is commonly thought, but in adapting them to the television age, hence greatly increasing their effectiveness — a force multiple for nonviolence, if you will.

    BTW, as one who enjoys photography and philately, but also is a dedicated fisherman and pistol and rifle shooter, and who would, like Ben, happily cook a multi-course meal for friends or family, but also is a die-hard Forty-niners fan, I sure hope we’re talking about more than one kind of man recruited — if such is the need — back into our churches. That was a part of the point of my comment about about the silliness of some of those dedicated hairy-chested types like godmen.

    Bill

  10. Hi Ben,
    Fascinating movement: I’m not of the school that history repeats itself, but I do find this turn to a more masculine Jesus intriguing, largely because we have been there and done that. A century ago American Christianity experienced a similar anxiety, giving rise to “muscular Christianity” (the YMCA was one product of that movement). Then came the Men in Religion Forward Movement and other similar efforts (ranging from a host of books to men’s revivals) to infuse the masculine into religion, and religion into the masculine. What is striking to me about these movements is that probably say more about the cultural context (including the shadow of war in both cases and increasing anxiety about gender identity and roles) than they do about religion, which, with the exception of early Puritanism, has always had more female than male participants in America. Thanks for another thought provoking piece, Ben.

  11. Bill,

    Thanks for the tip on Alinski. Your reference to Alinski made me wonder if Barak Obama was doing community organizing for Alinski’s organization in Chicago before he entered politics. (I know he was a community organizer in Chicago).

    In a nod to PACT, my daughter goest to a great–if underfunded–school started by that organization: further evidence that religious people don’t always make a mess of it when they get political!

    BD

  12. Jim,

    Thanks for the historical perspective (for those of you who don’t know him, my friend Jim is a professor of American religious history at Santa Clara). The shadow of the war is an interesting facet to comtemplate.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  13. On the 9rules website I’ve started a similar conversation and one participant quoted a pastor who said he couldn’t worship someone he could beat up.

    What do you think of that, especially in light of the coming passion week?

  14. Johathan,

    Flesh this out. Are you suggesting that Christianity is particularly bad for men? And if so, do you mean to say that women are less affected by Chrstianity’s problems?

    In my critique of the Church (admittedly it is a friendly critique), I would say that the Church has been very hard on women over the years, which doesn’t explain why the church has more women than men in attenance.

    Saying merely that Christianity is the problem doesn’t answer questions around why men attend church in fewer numbers. Tell us more.

    Ben

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