The Macho Man Gospel

15 Jul

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A recent Christian film, Courageous depicts a handful of middle-aged men who through a series of trying life circumstances bind to together in a resolution to become godly men. Each of them undergoes a transformation throughout the movie from a more timid, passive, reactionary role in their work and families towards a more proactive, responsible, and loving role. The climax of the movie happens when these men draft a covenant vowing to take responsibility for themselves and their families in a bold counter-cultural move toward a “biblical picture” of manhood. At the end of the movie, the main character is seen standing in front of a large church reading the covenant out loud with trembling courage and resolve. Here are a few lines from The Resolution for Men

I WILL love God with all of my heart, all of my mind, and all of my strength and pray that by my example my family will be taught to do the same.

I WILL lead my family not into serving or loving the world, but to cast their eyes upon the Lord and serve Him only.

I WILL demonstrate to my family what it means to be a man of God and ask their support each day in my endeavor.

I WILL enter into this covenant today and begin my life as a courageous man who will lead his family joyfully every day.

The movie itself could have been worse to be honest. In a long line to kitschy Christian films, this one is perhaps the most tastefully done. Though cheesy one-liners and cultural christianisms abound (along with an unconvincing attempt at cultural exposés with token black and Latino characters) I’ll admit there were some hair-raising moments of inspiration. I’ll also say it seems to have lit a fire in the bellies of conservative Christian men everywhere. There is now a revival of sorts within the “Baptist bent” of Evangelicalism: a renewal of male leadership and initiative passionately seeking to reclaim biblical masculinity from a culture which opposes true manhood, offering jockish passivity as a cheap alternative.

Maybe that explains why for every teaching I’ve heard on Jesus since coming to Georgia, I think I’ve heard at least as many lessons on gender. Sermons and bible studies on male leadership within the household have flooded the church. I don’t think I’m out of my depth to say there’s an obsession with gender, with reestablishing the differences between men and women, with cultivating men who will assume a benevolent authority over their wives and children, leading them with gentle firmness to love and fear God.

At its heart I could almost love the 1-page Resolution. Almost. After all, who wouldn’t want men to reject passivity, take responsibility, and love their families? But I’m witnessing the fallout on the ground level and it’s causing me some concern. Let me lay it out. Then I’ll take a stab at some proactive solutions…

Men hear strength with invulnerability. That’s not what the covenant states. It’s what guys hear. Maybe that’s because in our culture, strength and vulnerability are polar opposites on a continuum… be brave or be weak, tremble or be tough. In fact, we know the greatest acts of courage ARE acts of vulnerability. But I don’t sense this is emphasized very well. So there’s a subtle pressure: if things get tough, be strong for your family. If you’re scared, or exhausted, or depressed, muscle through for your family. Walk it out, take control, don’t just roll over. God wants you to be strong, not needy or whiny.

Gender-neutral qualities become the sole property of men. Since when were women NOT called to take responsibility, be courageous, and lay down their lives for their family? I’d say a quick study of Ruth, Abigail, Jael, Deborah, Lydia, and countless other biblical women would put that to rest. Also, I think there’s a strong biblical paradigm for men to nurture and to cultivate beautiful things. So is there a difference? Clearly! But in matters of spiritual maturity, I find the bible to be surprisingly gender neutral. We do God a disservice when we draw sharp lines where there is “neither male nor female.”

Women become children. As I’ve gotten to know a number of conservative Christians here in Georgia, I’ve been shocked by the disparaging attitude towards women. Now men of every stripe and culture will always complain about their wives, but there’s an added bite down here, a true bitterness against the “weaker sex.” I can’t tell you how many anecdotes I’ve heard with some variation of the phrase, “well, you know how women are.” Okay, let me share my own stupidity here: Every single time in my marriage that I’ve said, “Debra, I want you to trust me and follow my lead on this one,” I’ve grown to regret it. Usually it’s because those strong-arm decisions come out of my deepest fears and insecurities (though at the time I mislabeled them “convictions”). And fear drives us to control. The message I send my wife is not, “I love you too much to let our family go that direction.” The message is, “you are emotional and not to be trusted with big decisions. You need a strong, rational man to take care of you.” Truth is, my wife is really good at taking care of herself and her family. In fact she’s almost better at it when I’m not around to tell her how helpless she is! Without getting into the expansive biblical debate, I find things go much better for everyone when you treat your wife like an intelligent, capable adult instead of a dependant with curves.

Roles begin to supersede maturity. Again, this is NOT the thrust of the Resolution for Men but it IS the thrust of human nature. Parse out roles, draw a line, be a man. I see guys who are seriously concerned about whether they should let their wives do “man’s work” because they fear they’ll be (1) shirking their responsibilities or (2) quietly emasculated by their female counterparts. Then they wonder why their wives aren’t more grateful to have a husband that takes responsibility and honors the woman’s role in the household.

Resolutions lead to white-knuckling and shame. More on that here. The idea is that a covenant is a binding thing that can be really dangerous for our hearts. Those “I will never” or “I will always” statements usually create more shame than progress. And behind this gorgeously idyllic resolution, I see the sneaky head of shame slithering up to condemn those rotten, ungodly men who will never measure up to “God’s idea” of a righteous man. Is that happening here on the ground? You betcha.

So let me present a couple alternatives to the “manly man gospel” which I think will do a better job of developing godly, responsible men.

Teach sonship. Healthy biblical manhood rests on healthy biblical sonship. We have a bunch of guys trying to be men before they’ve learned to be boys. My counselor friends tell me we all have uncompleted “developmental tasks”, things every child needs to learn before he can become an adult: how to bond with another person, how to be independent, how to tell the difference between himself and another person, how to tell the difference between good and bad… We want to stand up and be warriors but we never learned to sit in our father’s lap. So maybe before we teach guys how to be manly men, we should learn how to be little children. (resource: Jack Frost on spiritual sonship.)

Teach vulnerability. We need to emphasize that great courage comes out of great risk and great fear. Those moments of deep insecurity in which we lay ourselves on the line in a wild “bid for connection” (credit to Brenee Brown)… that has more to do with courage than mere moral rectitude or leadership. We ought to drive home the point that real strength is not an opposing vector to vulnerability, but that they are inextricable.

Develop character, not gender roles. I think we’d better just table the subject to be honest with you. Because we have more foundational work to spend our energy on. Not that gender isn’t important; it’s just that there are a lot more valuable topics for consideration right now. Like, “what does it mean be a person?” “Are you acceptable?” “What’s God’s heart?” “What is good? What is bad?” “What is forgiveness all about?”

Don’t resolve. Heal. Resolutions are easy. Progress is hard. Real transformative personal/spiritual growth goes deeper than our habits or disciplines. It goes right into the dusty corners of our hearts, those long-neglected areas we really don’t want to show our church friends. (And I’m not talking about your closet drinking.) What I’m saying is that discipleship is part and parcel with emotional healing. That’s why the folks I work for developed a group experience to shed light on those dusty corners, to grieve losses, to confront shame, and to understand emotions. It’s called Restoring Your Heart and in my opinion, it’s one of the best things to come out of the church in the last 20 years. Other groups like “Celebrate Recovery”, and“Shiloh Place Ministries” are also doing great stuff in this arena.

What do you think about “The Macho Man Gospel”? Share in the comments!

-Nate Harkness

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Nate Harkness lives in Fayetteville, GA where he works as an international trainer for Worldwide Discipleship Association. He travels to Africa several times a year where he conducts discipleship training seminars for Christian leaders. He is a husband, papa, musician, and blogger.

One Response to “The Macho Man Gospel”

  1. beckycastlemiller July 23, 2013 at 10:35 #

    This is great. Thanks for tackling some unfortunate gender stereotypes in the church! “Develop character, not gender roles” is excellent.

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