November 07, 2003
Men, men, men, men

Donald Sensing has a long post protesting the feminization of church. Allen Brill begs to differ.

I agree with Allen that much of Christianity is inimical to machismo, but I don't think he presents much of an alternative. From my observations of a lot of churches I've been through lately, it's true that mainline Protestant churches are lacking in young, heterosexual, healthy men. This includes the one I'm going to now -- the Bible study I went to this week had only one man in it, and he seems like he's gay. This is not to criticize the presence of women and gay men, but to ask: why won't the Playstation crowd show up? And why were they so clearly in evidence at my old Pentecostal church?

I am obviously at a disadvantage when contemplating the young male psyche, but several things cross my mind. I think that Allen is making a mistake in presenting the only two alternatives as liberal Christianity the way it is, or the Greco-Roman honor/shame code. I know exactly what code he's talking about, and I certainly see it in a lot of guys, but I didn't see it at Christian Assembly. Don't we have any other choices?

Telford told me that he converted because, in contrast to the liberal Protestant Jesus of his upbringing, he realized the real Jesus "isn't a pushover." On his blog a while ago, he described it like this:

I am not a fan of interpretations of Luke that water down its radicalism. I was saved because one night, unchurched and bored, I read Luke and took verses like this one at their face value. Here, finally, I met a Jesus whom I had never met in sermons or Sunday schools, a Jesus I could no longer ignore. Fortunately I was unaware of the widespread homiletical tradition of qualifying and explaining away passages that threaten the suburban social status quo, so I was left with the alternatives Jesus meant his audiences to face: Take it or leave it. Either take me seriously, or go away. Either enter the kingdom, or don't. Just don't waste my time.

I also remember a conversation I overheard between two secular Jewish guys at my office talking about sending their children to Christian schools. Essentially, they were trying to determine which denomination would be the least troublesome.

"The Episcopalians are basically nothing, aren't they?" said one.

"No -- the Episcopalians have this big hierarchy. But the Lutherans -- they're about nothing."

You don't have to be on a convert-the-Jews trip to find this a little disturbing. Since these guys weren't even practicing Jews, they represented more the "suburban status quo" that Telford was talking about. And I know Telford well, and he certainly isn't into the shame/honor code. He's a pacifist. What I think all these guys were getting at is that liberal Christianity doesn't seem to demand anything of them. They can receive the benefits of the church -- education, fellowship, whatever -- without having to give anything back, without having their worldviews shaken, or having to sacrifice anything. When the deal looks like that, I think the young macho guys are the first to say, "Why bother?"

I think Donald was absolutely right when he said this:

Boys and men find it overwhelmingly important to be seen as manly men, independent, confident and self-assured, but Christian faith is culturally seen as a sort of wimpy crutch for people who canít handle life on their own.

I've encountered that attitude a lot. To some extent, it stems from an unwillingness to recognize one's own brokenness, which liberal Christians are more reluctant than conservatives to point out to people. But it also comes from a failure to articulate the demands of faith. Telford tells me he wasn't especially unhappy or searching for anything that night he read Luke, but it came and walloped him anyway. Church is a help to those in need, yes, but it also requires things of you when you aren't in need. Jesus' message is for the strong as well as the weak.

I think that liberal Christianity is demanding in its way, and certainly pastors like Allen want to upset the suburban status quo. But it's not all that good at advertising the fact. The pastor at Christian Assembly wasn't big on fire and brimstone, but he did emphasize the power of God, and the sufferings endured by Jesus and his followers. I suspect that this appealed to the young men in the audience.

This is also why I wouldn't put that fabulous Michaelangelo statue that Allen posts in the same category as the kitschy pictures on One Hand Clapping. It's a much better work of art, of course, but it's so much better largely because it presents a gripping image of human pain. In those kitsch pictures there's no pain or hardship, it's all warm and fuzzy. I don't think you have to be itching to kill people to think, "Why bother?"

Posted by Camassia at November 07, 2003 06:40 PM | TrackBack


A liberal Catholic white heterosexual male here, having seen the link to this on The Right Christians.

I couldn't agree more with you on the notion that liberal Christians don't advertise their strand of thought/belief very well. There is, in the world of liberal Catholicism, a tendency to have a lot of talking and many forums on social and economic justice, but gut-level advocacy is lacking. This doesn't always happen, but often enough for me to take more than a little bit of notice. Social justice preaching from the pulpit doesn't translate into a predominantly activist parish; there's kind of a flavor of "parlor liberalism," much discussed but not translated into the nitty-gritty of life.

I do have to raise a cautionary note, though, with respect to Telford (I'm not familiar with his writings; background would be great) and his characterization of Jesus' attitude toward Luke: Jesus was not a religious Archie Bunker. "Take it or leave it" is much too much of an oversimplification, and moreover, an overly severe interpretation of Jesus' attitude, in my mind. And this gets to the notion of the liberal Protestant Jesus being a "pushover."

According to human logic, the cross represents the ultimate in humility and embarrassment and weakness. Jesus had the supreme strength to not fight back and give his life for the world. If we get hooked on notions of manliness, we men will miss the boat.

Jesus did want his followers to take him seriously, but he did not readily want people to leave and peel off if they "couldn't cut it."

Faith is much more nuanced than some men would like it to be. Therefore, when Allen Brill frames certain choices, it's not just a matter of A or B, but also of how A and B are developed.

A great post with a lot of great follow-up issues to be explored.

Posted by: Matt Zemek on November 8, 2003 08:04 AM

Thanks Matt!

I assure you that Telford does not see Jesus as a religious Archie Bunker, though he might have thought of it more that way when he was 17 (I didn't know him then). I know he'd agree with you about the message of the crucifixion and having the strength not to fight back. Telf takes the turn-the-other-cheek idea with Yoderite seriousness, if you know what I mean.

I think the important point here is that Jesus talked to different people in different ways. He was compassionate with the poor and the needy, and people who came to him for help. But to people who were better off, and who were quite satisfied with themselves, he was much more challenging. Consider how he argued with Pharisees, for instance. Or the story in Luke about the rich man ending up in hell.

I get the feeling that Jesus did this because when people don't have a pressing, obvious need for God's help, it may take a more aggressive approach to get them to realize that they also need God, that they're sinners and they're not immortal. The overarching message of Christianity is that power is ultimately aligned with the powerless. But I sometimes think liberals have gotten so allergic to the language of power, that they can make church seem like just another virtuous social group, not the will of the Almighty.

Of course, ideally people are not going to help the poor etc. just out of fear of the Big Guy. But I do think it's a useful way to grab people's attention and shake them out of their complacency, and it does have a strong biblical precendent. As you say, within the church masculine strength isn't so much eliminated as redefined.

Posted by: Camassia on November 8, 2003 09:53 AM

Is *Power* the issue for men that gets them into the church (or drives them away)? You asked the question, where are the (straight) young men and teenage boys? Why aren't they in the pews?

I have lately been running across a prodigious amount of websites and blogs that identify themselves with the "Emerging Church." Their chief complaint seems to be that the established church (pick any denomination) doesn't understand their post-modern generation, doesn't address their needs, doesn't provide them with a meaningful connection to their faith.

I am not a Generation X-er. I am a tail-end baby boomer. I have to confess that I don't "get" the complaint of the Emerging Church. But it is clear to me that many post-modern people are feeling alienated from the established church, and are not sitting in the pews because they feel disenfranchised somehow. And *that* is a cause of concern for me, even if I don't identify with the pain, personally.

Maybe you could say they are feeling powerless. But, from these Emerging Church websites, it's sounding to me more like young people, men and women, are feeling lost or abandoned by the church, and are mostly searching for understanding or love or comfort; which seems to me a gentler issue than power.

Posted by: Dash on November 9, 2003 07:43 PM

I think you hit the nail on the head. Pundit Chris Matthews said that men live for competition and if Christianity demands nothing then there's no competition, even within yourself. Why try to be better when 'I'm OK and you're OK'? If everyone goes to heaven the stakes are so low most guys won't bother. But if they see it as the ultimate football game, then politics and sports seem penny-ante. (Disclaimer: I would like to be on the record as favoring that everyone go to heaven!)

Posted by: TSO on November 10, 2003 08:21 AM

This is a great discussion.

Liberal mainline Protestant male here, 39 y.o., married w/kids, in the process of returning to the church after drifting away in my 20s and early 30s.

In adult Sunday school class recently, we have been working through Philip Yancey's series on grace. Yesterday's segment contrasted God's grace, freely offered, with the legalistic worldview of the Pharisees, whereby if you followed the law to the letter you could feel assured of God's favor.

I see the point made here that liberal Christianity is tolerant perhaps to a fault and doesn't demand specific actions or sacrifices from its members. But one thing a more legalistic theology offers is a minimum standard. If you attend worship regularly, if you tithe, if you receive the sacraments, you can feel you are making progress toward salvation. A liberal congregation cuts lots of slack; you can show up sporadically, be stingy with your offerings, etc., and won't be openly scorned. But there's an existential gap -- there are no steps toward salvation, there is only an impossibly high standard, that we are asked to get as close to as we can.

Maybe this is projection on my part, but I think a fairly important feature of the male psyche is the hunger for success (in comparative, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses terms) and fear of failure. The impossibly high standard of walking in Christ's footsteps causes some men to flee the church. And judging by my Sunday school class, some men IN the church have trouble with the notion of radical grace. Unconditional love? Blanket forgiveness? OK in theory, but in practice, if you harm me or my family there's going to be an eye for an eye.

I'm not an expert, but at least in some quarters the "emerging church" offers a theology of success and prosperity, which reduces the Gospel to a kind of self-help methodology. Look at the Prayer of Jabez phenomenon. I'll bet you those churches are doing relatively well at attracting straight middle-class men of the Baby Boom and Gen-X generations.

Posted by: dix hill on November 10, 2003 11:13 AM

Dix, until now I've never heard of the "Prayer of Jabez phenomenon." So I googled on it and found Bruce Wilkinson's sales site. I don't think his gig is connected to the "emerging church." I think he's actually pretty old school, conservative, fundy, and claiming self-enrichment through their religion. From the emerging church sites I've read, they have nothing to do with Wilkinson's kind of religion.

If the idea of emerging church interests you and you want to read directly from them, here are some of the emerging church websites and blogs I've found:

Emerging church

Emerging Leaders network

A kingdom space

Looking forward looking back

Deep dirt

Lingering lemon of death

Posted by: Dash on November 10, 2003 03:34 PM

If male Christians are drawn by something that appeals to their competitive nature, and which all too easily leads to the Prayer of Jabez/Gospel of Prosperity worldview, I don't know what I can say in terms of pure theology to sway them and bring them back into mainline churches.

What I can say, from a personal or (to use a colder term) "marketing" standpoint, is this:

you can be a dynamic, difference-making and "successful" presence by associating with the unattractive and beaten-down, allowing the God who dwells within you to shine forth in all its attractiveness and power.

Appealing to the need to make a difference by performing actions of solidarity and justice is the only way I could channel a competitive mentality into something positive. But even then, it would be inherently inauthentic as a matter of theology.

The only tie I could possibly make--as hinted at above--is that God dwells within each person, and that the only way one's inner God (not a God one controls, and not a God who controls us, but a God who gently guides us and wants us to reach out to others) can shine forth is for us to proactively work to make the world better. That's about the best appeal to a competitive male instinct that I can make, without making a total fool of myself. (Only a partial fool! :-)

Posted by: Matt Zemek on November 10, 2003 06:02 PM

Matt, I agree. I was making an observation, not advocating some kind of dog-eat-dog Christianity. The men I'm talking about are stuck in a cultural mindset, in my view, and not thinking theologically.

I was responding to the idea that liberal churches make no demands on members. I would tweak that idea to say that liberal churches make few specific demands, but huge *implied* demands -- to surrender yourself, to love God and love your neighbor unconditionally. This can be scary. (Probably I'm projecting my personal neuroses on the male population.)

Dash: Sorry, I didn't realize "Emerging Church" was a specific organization. I glanced at some of the sites you listed. I have to say, I'm a mainline person and don't have much affinity for the mega-church/postmodern church movement. It's a theology partly based on market research. And the common thread with the "Prayer of Jabez" is that it's pandering -- it's putting OUR prerogatives first rather than God's will or the accumulated wisdom of church tradition.

Posted by: dix hill on November 11, 2003 09:19 AM

When Jesus caught his disciples arguing about who was the greatest, he didn't suppress it but channeled it. Understanding human nature, He didn't say, "you're all the best. you're all equal!" he said that the one who serves is the greatest.

Posted by: tso on November 11, 2003 03:15 PM
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