There’s been a lot of recent talk in this sphere about so-called masculine Christianity. Some Christian leaders, like Mark Driscoll and John Piper, seem to prefer a brand of Christianity that appeals to the prevailing sense of masculinity as defined by nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western culture. And they erroneously claim that brand of Christianity should be presented to everyone.
I’m not here to add my voice to the collection of voices decrying this narrow and culturally defined view of God and his Word. Plenty of people are doing that, and I applaud many of their efforts to defend a broader view of God and his revelation of both himself and our relationship with him.
I’m actually here to grant them a little grace. And to tell you how “masculine Christianity” just may have saved someone I care about.
My brother-in-law Bryan fits the archetype of a “masculine Christian.” He’s a police detective who spent time in the military; he likes fast cars, guns, and brewing his own beer. He’s also a family man, a loving husband and a caring father of five. And he’s totally committed to Christ.
Bryan grew up in the church, in what he calls a “pretty common type of Sunday school.” He learned about Bible “characters” in flannel-board stories that didn’t seem real at all. They were “smiling, easygoing cartoon characters with no real human emotions.” For example, he remembers a cartoonish picture of Joseph in his colorful robe, with a big goofy smile on his face, talking about how he got tossed into a well and sold into slavery. “Then, still smiling, he invites his brothers in for supper and they all hug with forgiveness flowing like the Nile!” No anger, no tension.
“I couldn’t relate,” says Bryan. “I have always known God was real and was the creator of the universe, but I had a hard time relating to a faith that was portrayed by these ‘characters.’ ” From middle school on, he knew that his life wasn’t full of smiles when things were hard or he faced difficult choices. “I definitely didn’t remember any of the flannel board characters dealing with daily decisions like ‘I feel like hanging out with my friends and I couldn’t care less what my parents asked me to do’ or ‘I really enjoy partying, but WWJD?’ ” The stories he grew up with didn’t address his everyday situations. “Hypothetical and idealistic lessons of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love didn’t make sense with what I was learning as a soldier in an infantry unit, believing I was heading to a war in a different country. Those ideas wouldn’t help me survive or help me keep the other guys in my unit alive.”
Bryan still believed God was real, but he felt distant and unknowable, unrelated to the God he had learned about in Sunday school, who was simply too weak and irrelevant to inform Bryan’s world. “It didn’t work, so I figured the people who were teaching me had it all wrong. I hadn’t read the Bible, so I had no idea other than that there had to be some kind of God out there…it just wasn’t the one I learned about in Sunday school.”
When Bryan and his brother challenged each other to read the entire Bible, he had no idea the Old Testament was anything other than those stories he had heard as a child. As he made his way through the first six books, he discovered that God was not a frustrated idealist who didn’t quite know what to do with difficult people like Pharaoh; he was a ruthless protector of his people. Bryan understood the realism in God’s command that the Israelites destroy the people in the land they were conquering so they wouldn’t become a thorn in their side. He was in for a bigger surprise when he got to Judges: “I never remember hearing about Ehud from my Sunday school teachers. That guy was working for God and just ran that fat man through with a sword! Plus, he was left handed, like me. Then it kept going. These guys God sent were actually warriors! They had good tactics, they didn’t fight fair, and they killed a lot of people with a brutal description I would never have guessed was written in the Bible. After all, I had thought it was just a story book with lots of smiley flannel people (even the lions were smiling).”
As he read on, the Bible started to fit with the way Bryan experienced real life and human nature. When he read about David, he saw “a man of honor and a great warrior.” He saw a man who screwed up and lived with the kind of tragedy he saw as a police officer every day. “The pain of people’s stories and their daily struggles were making sense to me. They became people with a story, or even better, real people with real testimonies of how God worked in their lives, right there in the trenches with them.”
When he made his way to the New Testament, Bryan discovered that Jesus wasn’t a one-dimensional, passive, peace-at-all-costs kind of character, but that “he was one to stir the pot and appropriately challenge authority like nobody else. Jesus just had a way of challenging the Pharisees peacefully that made them explode with anger.” Bryan admired Jesus’ love for truth and justice. And he gave his heart and soul to this strong, manly Jesus. It was a muscular version of Christianity that caught Bryan’s attention and gave him a new course for his life.
To be clear, it wasn’t only the realistic violence, the challenges to human authority, or the complex human struggles that attracted Bryan to Jesus. But finding those elements in the Bible “definitely made the testimony of the Bible more believable for me. Now that the Bible is something I can relate to, it is something I can learn from, and something I can trust for advice when I have a struggle or a question.”
Bryan was attracted to faith by a version of Christianity that he could relate to. If he had been taught this version of God’s truth earlier, he “would have come along a lot sooner and more willingly.” But his understanding of Christianity doesn’t stop there. “Rahab, Ruth, Esther, Mary, and many more women would put many guys to shame with their cunning, wisdom, endurance, and tenacity. The idea that women are inferior isn’t anywhere in the Bible that I read.”
For people like Bryan, a “masculine Christianity” may mean the difference between belief and nonbelief. Please understand that I’m not saying it’s OK for proponents of masculine Christianity to denigrate women, to discount us, to treat us as if we are less important than they are. It’s not accurate to say that Christianity is exclusively masculine. I’m not saying a masculine interpretation is the only way to interpret and present Christianity.
But I am saying it’s one way—it’s part of the truth, just as God’s more traditionally feminine qualities are part of the truth—and for some people it’s critical. It is accurate to say that Christianity includes many elements that appeal to men who fit the profile of traditional masculinity in our culture. And there is nothing wrong with them looking for elements of the faith that they can relate to, that call to them and give them a sense of mission and purpose in their lives. In our efforts to point out all the exceptions, we sometimes forget that some people do fit these archetypes, and those people matter to God just as much as those who might be marginalized by such traditional understandings.
Maybe we women need to try to understand where they’re coming from. And they, in return, need to understand where we’re coming from. That we need just what they need: an understanding of Christianity that is grounded in biblical truth and that we can relate to. That speaks to us in our deepest places and gives us a calling and a purpose. We are all limited in our perspectives, and our personal temperaments allow us to stretch only so far. But the kingdom of God, the calling of God, is big enough for all of us.
When I hear men insist that a traditionally masculine interpretation of Christian truth is the right and only interpretation, I suspect what they’re trying to say is that they feel alienated, put off, and personally rejected by a version of Christianity that seems wimpy to them, impotent, mamby-pamby. For men who do fit the image of masculinity considered most common in current Western culture, these times of surging female power and unprecedented equality must feel threatening. This threatened feeling is relatively new to them, so they don’t know how to express it yet. And they haven’t yet realized that women have been trying to say the same thing about our own alienation and rejection for thousands of years. We can relate—so let’s be empathic with them and take the opportunity to learn about the importance of communicating our own experience in a way that doesn’t sound like hatred and threats. We know they have nothing to fear from sharing the table with us—but I don’t think they all know that yet.
Men who fit the masculine archetype need to understand that when they speak in terms of exclusivity (all elements of Christianity are masculine; men are called; men are strong and brave), it doesn’t matter how much they say, “we aren’t saying we’re better than you, just different.” No matter what, their words ring hollow. They are pushing us out of the circle. But because they are my brothers in Christ and I don’t know them or their motives, I will choose to believe that they truly don’t understand what their words do to us.
I want to give these brothers the benefit of the doubt. To believe that they don’t realize that the relief and sense of connection they feel when they realize Jesus is not a wimp is similar to what we feel when we finally become convinced that he loves us and doesn’t regret making us. I don’t believe they realize that the fear they feel under the threat that they might lose a sense of strong connection to God and a church culture they relate to, is a faint echo of the wholesale rejection generations of women have experienced in the church. So I will give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that this conversation might actually help us better understand each other.
© 2012 Amy Simpson.