Review: Jesus and John Wayne

Jesus and John Wayne, Kristen Kobes Du Mez. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020.

Summary: A historical study of how the ideal of rugged masculinity typified by John Wayne influenced the evangelical embrace of authority, gender roles, and conservative, nationalist politics.

This is one of the most intensely discussed books in religious publishing over the past year. Kristen Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin University historian, offers a carefully documented account of the development of authoritarian, patriarchal and “muscular” models of masculinity which have invaded evangelical religious subculture and played a vital role in evangelical political engagement.

Her title is drawn from “Jesus and John Wayne,” a 1980’s Christian hit of the Gaither Vocal Band. She traces how Wayne’s muscular and sometimes violent form of masculinity supplanted the Jesus of the gospels as the evangelical model of masculinity. She traces the fascination with the square-jawed, passionate Billy Graham and the youth leader become family guru Bill Gothard as early figures in this trend, teachers like James Dobson and Tim LaHaye, media figures as diverse as Mel Gibson and Duck Dynasty, and military figures like Oliver North.

This is a movement not only about masculinity but patriarchal gender roles, supported oddly enough by women like Elizabeth Eliot, Phyllis Schlafly, and Marabel Morgan (remember The Total Woman?). Kobes Du Mez traces the influence of the Promise Keepers movement, John Eldredge’s books, Pastor Douglas Wilson, Mark Driscoll, and John Piper in upholding militant masculinity and male control of families. More troubling yet are the connections between this culture, purity teaching, and sexual abuse.

The book also traces the exploitation of this vision of masculinity by the conservative political movement from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. The author challenges the argument advanced by some that only “unchurched” embrace these values. She shows studies that demonstrate high numbers of the most faithful have been equally supportive. She argues that Trump’s rough masculinity appealed to a subculture schooled for seventy years on “John Wayne” models of masculinity and helped explain their willingness to overlook his moral flaws and failings.

This is a deeply troubling account, especially since I’ve witnessed the damage of women abused and not protected by the church, and the thwarting of the gifts of women eager to use them to follow Christ. This is an important but uncomfortable book for men in church leadership to read and wrestle with. Many of us have been troubled by the political allegiance of large swaths of evangelicalism with one political party. What this book connected for me is the connection between these allegiances and flawed masculine and gender role ideals. I also found troubling the complicity of much of the Christian bookselling industry in promoting these views.

If I would have any objection, it is that the narrative does not offer counter-examples, including the Christian institution at which the author holds tenure. We hear of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood but there is no mention of the Council of Biblical Equality. We hear of scholars like Wayne Grudem and John Piper but not of Craig Keener and Aida Besancon Spencer and many others supportive of equal partnership between men and women in marriage and ministry. Nor do we hear of egalitarian churches and ministries, except a passing reference to Beth Moore. Although these movements have not achieved the political influence nor the rank and file embrace of many evangelicals, they offer a counter-narrative that may point the way forward. Many of these operate in what Ross Douthat calls “the evangelical penumbra” and may be increasingly uncomfortable with the identifier “evangelical” for reasons this book makes abundantly clear.

The challenge these groups face, underscored by this book, is to articulate a compelling vision for men and women following Christ, of Christian character and the fruit of the Spirit, lived out in both marriage and ministry partnerships, committed to pursuing the missio dei rather than political influence. Neither the culture of the 1950’s or the 2020’s can help us. Only the real Jesus of the Gospels.

Toxic Masculinity?

we believe the best men can be gillette short film youtube

Screen capture: Closing image of “The Best Men Can Be”, Film by Gillette via YouTube

The internet blew up this past week over a video Gillette released titled “The Best Men Can Be.” It may go down as a courageous effort and a bad business decision. As of this writing, the video has been disliked by nearly twice as many as liked it.

I find that reaction puzzling, understandable, and disturbing.

The video shows images of bullying, sexual harassment, condescending behavior toward women, and a row of men behind barbecue grills chanting mantra-like “boys will be boys.” as one child beats another up in front of them. It shifts to a multiple screen portrayal of media coverage of #MeToo, and then to a call for action, a challenge for men to be their best selves, to hold each other accountable to a higher standard in their treatment of women and to call each other out (“not cool”), to help each other resolve conflict peacefully, to intervene when witnessing bullying, to empower one’s children, and to be models to the next generation of men.

The reaction is puzzling. Do we really dislike the message that men should act with integrity, courage, respect, and as positive role models of the same to their sons and other boys? Can we really justify bullying, violence, disrespect of women under the catch-all justification “boys will be boys?”

The reaction is understandable. This has been the ideal of masculinity going around for a long time. I grew up with it. Men were supposed to be tough, and you showed it by picking on “weaklings,” or by pretending you were tough so that you wouldn’t get picked on. Women existed to gratify your pleasures. Real men don’t show feelings or weakness.

The reaction is disturbing. It tells me that this version of masculinity is alive and well. You lash out when criticism gets too close for comfort. And it appears there is a significant amount of that discomfort.

It troubles me when…

  • we confuse bullying with courage–the courage that goes into battle, that fights wrongs, that protects the vulnerable.
  • we teach that resorting to violence is better than the calm word, or knowing when to walk away.
  • we justify objectifying women with looks, catcalls, gropes, and more rather than respecting their dignity as unique and gifted persons capable of running companies, outrunning us in some cases, and perhaps saving our lives.

So we have a society where most of the perpetrators of gun violence are men, mostly young men. So we have a society where men’s stoical determination not to show weakness drives them to an early grave from hypertension, heart disease, and a host of other ills. So we have a society where far too many of those who father children are AWOL when it comes to helping raise them. All of this seems like “toxic” masculinity to me, not good for men or those around them.

Some of the reaction to the ad arises from a perceived “war against boys and men.” I get that, and if you only watched the first part of the Gillette ad, you might have the same reaction. If even half the claims of #MeToo are warranted (and I suspect the percentage is far higher) it is hard time to feel good about one’s gender if you identify as male.

What I appreciated about the ad is that it went beyond “these guys are bad” and”I’m not that guy” to affirm models of masculinity that show true strength rather than posturing. It models calling each other to higher standards of respect toward women, of father’s empowering their daughters, of acting with courage and decency in front of one’s son. What the critics of this commercial miss, in my view, is that none of the positive models are sissies but people who act with strength. It’s not a put down of men but a call for men to step up.

A number of those who read this blog are believing Christians, and some of you may disagree with me. The question I have is, do you think Jesus is a model of true masculinity?  I think of the incident where Jesus’s followers are “chest bumping” over who is the greatest among them–typical toxic masculinity. Jesus replies:

“…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43b-45)

Do we consider Jesus weak because he defines greatness in terms of servanthood, and his own mission as one of serving? Jesus says this as he is walking to the city where he will be betrayed, arrested and killed. Do we not consider perhaps the ultimate show of courage to be when someone gives their life for another? Is this not great strength? Is not every other act of service willingly given to one’s partner, one’s children, one’s colleagues, one’s community, likewise an act of strength?

I think it is something like this that Gillette means when it speaks of “The Best Men Can Be.” The cynics just consider it an advertising stunt. If so, it is probably a failed one. I’d rather call it an instance of corporate responsibility as a purveyor of men’s products. I’ve been shaving with Gillette razors since I started sprouting facial hair. I have Gillette razors in my medicine cabinet. I have no plans to stop using them.