Hyper-Muscular Christianity -- Sightings

For years we've been hearing about the feminization of religion. Go to any church and you're more likely to find women than men. Groups like Promise Keepers were designed to help counteract that image, to put the manliness back into Christianity. Real men, we were told, go to church. Of course, part of the message was a reinforcement of traditional patriarchal structures. Men were encouraged to become the "spiritual leaders" of the house, etc. Such groups generally oppose women in ministry -- how can a man experience a masculine faith if the preacher is a woman?

Of course, historically, while church leadership has generally been male, it has been women who have kept the spiritual home fires burning. Women generally were the ones who passed on the faith to the next generation -- while the men were off hunting/working.

More recently we've begun to see the emergence of a what Joseph Laycock calls here a "hyper-muscular Christianity," a muscular Christianity on steroids even. The most prominent of these purveyor's of the anti-sissy Christianity is Mark Driscoll. I do think you'll find this piece interesting! And maybe just a bit frightening as well.


Sightings 2/19/09

Hyper-Muscular Christianity

-- Joseph Laycock

In Seattle, self-described "charismatic Calvinist" Mark Driscoll preaches that "Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand, and the willingness to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship…I cannot worship a guy I can beat up." Justin Fatica, founder of the Catholic ministry group Hard as Nails, found a different way of demonstrating the rugged power of Christ when he appeared in an HBO documentary shouting "Jesus loves you!" as a colleague beat him with a folding chair.

Although Fatica is Catholic and Driscoll is Protestant, there are remarkable similarities between the two: Both were raised Catholic but had a lackadaisical approach to their faith until a conversion experience in their late teens (at age seventeen for Fatica, and age nineteen for Driscoll). Both men also emphasize their tough origins. Driscoll believes Jesus had calluses and does not hesitate to compare Joseph's vocation as a carpenter with his own father's career as a drywaller. Fatica comes from affluence but emphasizes that prior to his conversion he lived a shady, worldly life in New Jersey where he "hung out with some characters." These narratives generate the capital of manliness necessary for their sermons.

The preaching styles of Driscoll and Fatica–which are both controversial and confrontational–appear to be motivated by a concern that Jesus has been emasculated by a bloodless church that is more concerned with culture than salvation. They are not alone in this view. Fundamentalist cartoonist Jack Chick produces a comic tract entitled "The Sissy," in which a hirsute trucker named Duke mocks a fellow trucker's Christianity because "Jesus was a sissy." Have we actually reduced Jesus to, "a limp-wristed hippy in a dress with a lot of product in His hair," as Driscoll claims? Or are there other cultural forces behind these types of extreme preaching?

As Molly Worthen notes in a New York Times piece on Driscoll, men from Billy Sunday to the Promise Keepers have railed against the feminization of the church. "Muscular Christianity," which emphasized an ideal of vigorous masculinity, first appeared in Victorian England. The term was coined to describe the writings of Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes, who felt that sports and athleticism would produce Christians who were more fit for civic duty. Hughes and Kingsley also shared a concern over the changes of industrialism and worried whether traditional morality would be able to adapt.

Driscoll and Fatica appear to embody a sort of muscular Christianity on steroids. Rather than sports, Driscoll and Fatica tie Christianity to modern spectacles of violence. Fatica admits that his signature use of folding chairs is borrowed from World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Driscoll has organized an event called "Fighting with God" in which he discusses spiritual warfare with Christian athletes from the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

If Kingsley and Hughes were concerned about industrialism, Driscoll and Fatica seem to blame consumerism for feminizing Jesus. Driscoll writes in his book Vintage Jesus, "Jesus did not have Elton John or the Spice Girls on his iPod, The View on his TiVo, or a lemon-yellow Volkswagen Beetle in his garage." Tim Hanley, a speaker for Hard as Nails Ministries, has commented, "We've had enough of the facades and the fake people…We live in a world that's so fabricated." According to Worthen, the most popular movie at Driscoll's church is Fight Club, a tale of manly emancipation from consumer culture.

However, the perception that manliness must be restored to the church seems suspiciously linked the rise of women as well as gays and lesbians in the ministry. Another similarity between Driscoll and Fatica is that both have been cited making misogynistic comments. Fatica is known for pointing out overweight women in his audience and yelling, "You're fat!" He claims this is done to demonstrate the cruelty of consigning people to their categories. While Fatica encourages women to join the Hard as Nails ministry, Driscoll reminds his congregation that women must submit to their husbands and are forbidden from taking preaching roles. On his blog, Driscoll implied that Ted Haggard's wife contributed to his downfall: "A wife who lets herself go is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about is not responsible for her husband's sin, but she may not be helping him either." These comments beg the question: Is this hyper-muscular Christianity really a radical, transgressive approach to ministry? Or is it actually the death-throes of an outmoded patriarchy?


"Who Would Jesus Smack Down? Mark Driscoll–A Pastor with a Macho Conception of Christ," Molly Worthen, The New York Times, 6 January 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/11/magazine/11punk-t.html?_r=1

"Controversial Preacher is 'Hard as Nails,'" John Donovan and Julia Hoppock, ABC News.com, 20 June 2008. http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/FaithMatters/Story?id=4013475&page=1

Mark Driscoll, Vintage Jesus (Good News Publishers, 2008).

Joseph Laycock is a PhD student studying religion and society at Boston University, and the author of Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires (Praeger Publishers, 2009).


February's Religion and Culture Web Forum features an excerpt from Jeffrey Shandler's forthcoming book Jews, God, and Videotape: Religion and Media in America (NYU Press, 2009) wherein Shandler, professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, examines the use of new media by the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher hasidim.

Formal responses to Shandler's "The Virtual Rebbe" will be posted throughout the month by Sarah Imhoff (PhD candidate, University of Chicago Divinity School), Faye Ginsburg (New York University), and Ellen Koskoff (Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester).



Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Jody said…
Ah, Paul's warning in Colossians 2:8 is applicable yet again: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." Driscoll and his like-minded pastors and leaders are promoting a gospel that says in order for men to be real Christians, they must be real men first. Instead of preaching circumcision or dietary laws, they're preaching hyper-masculinity (as defined by the culture! Kind of ironic for someone who bills himself as Reformed, isn't it?) as a precondition for men to show an authentic Christian discipleship. i think Mr. Driscoll needs a reminder there's neither "male nor female" in Christ, and if any man is in Christ, he is a "new creation"- not one who's a man according to the old rules!
Anonymous said…
But isn't his any faith on the "tails". On the flip side you could talk about the movement to remove "Father" and "Him" because the male reference is offensive. Neither side is right in my mind.


These are difficult issues -- the gender issues.

My concern is that too often we over react. One one side there is the call to remove all masculine references and on the other to so over emphasize them that the real Jesus disappears.

I agree that many portrayals of Jesus picture him as effeminate -- this is especially true of Hollywood. Though, interestingly enough, The Last Temptation of Christ didn't.

But to make recast him into a kind of Jesus the Barbarian makes no sense either.

My greatest concern is with how such portrayals undermine the equality that exists between men and women.
Anonymous said…
Bob I agree with both your concerns. Jesus becomes either a wimp or someone ready to kick butt and take names. I don't think he was either. He hung out with sinners and many of the uptight conservatives we cringe. He also made bold claims on how to live that would stop many cold in their tracks. He could gather a huge crowd by feeding masses, but then disperse them with a hard teaching.

The fear I have on both sides is what Jody said that its recasting Jesus in our own image or the image we want him to be, rather than who he truly is.

Albert Schweitzer said of the Quest for the Historical Jesus, that the questers had looked down into a well and saw their own reflection.

To some degree we look into the scriptures and see the Jesus we want to see -- one that either reflects who we are or who we want to be.

The problem for all of us is that in the process of interpretation it is difficult to read such things into the text.

Jesus wasn't a kick boxer or an ultimate fighter. Neither was he afraid of his shadow.

He faced down the authorities, but not with a sword or with a mob. Instead, he gave his life. He said love your enemies, turn the check, go the extra mile -- not as a doormat but as a protest. It is a principle that MLK learned and used and it changed the world. The problem for Christians is that once Christendom emerged we forgot who Jesus was!
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