Ross Steinborn looks at the mainstream masculinity of Jesus and what this means for Christian men.
While there are many role models for Christian men to turn to in the Bible, one of the hardest to reconcile with many of today’s images of masculinity is Jesus. Masculinities of today are largely focused on being a devoted father and a caring and loving husband (two of the most popular sections of the Good Men Project cover these topics). Such visions of manhood are hard to connect to an unwed, nomadic figure who traveled around the Middle East with a band of twelve men (and presumably a few women). And who, at least to our knowledge, never prioritized marriage, sex or family as a major component of his life, let alone his sense of manhood.
With Christianity being largely built on the notion that we all need to follow in the footsteps of this man, it’s important that Jesus’ manliness mesh with that of his male followers. So how do we go about making Jesus fit our current visions of manhood?
The kind of man Jesus was (and is) has always, at least implicitly, been a point of theological contention. Recently there has been a surge in some Christian circles to reclaim the macho-ness of Jesus. For example, Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll and the New Calvinist movement reiterates that Jesus isn’t a hippie, Birkenstocks wearing, latte sipping, “peace and love” kind of guy. Rather Jesus is a warrior engaged in a battle against evil. When he returns he will show up on a white horse, sword in hand with plans to kick some ass and take some names.
It’s hard to overstate how visceral this macho vision of Jesus is in our collective vision of masculinity, but it is often mixed with a more caring vision of manhood. While Christians reveled at Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ for its portrayal of a Jesus who stood strong against the wrath and brutality of the Roman Empire, it also showed an emotional man who was an adoring son to his mother and cared deeply for his disciples.
Furthermore, to Tim Tebow and many of his fans, Jesus is padded up and taking hits on the fifty yard line—not unlike the straight to DVD sequel to Angels in The Outfield. But when he isn’t on the football field he is caring for his children and seducing his wife after the children are in bed. The point being that our collective imagination hardly thinks of Jesus as the quiet, reflective, spiritual man we were all taught about in Sunday school. Instead, we have come to imagine Jesus as a tough guy who is also a caring family man.
The church calls for all men to be such a man. Often contradicting masculine norms only to reassert them later, the church can be a confusing place for a young boy to grow to be a man. On the one hand, at least in the church I grew up in, boys and men were encouraged to express their emotions. I believe I’m much more emotionally mature and aware because of the many hours I spent in churches growing up. There it was okay for a man to cry in front of others and to embrace other men. In fact, it’s quite mandatory for men to express a deep love and admiration for Jesus, who was, at least while he was on earth, a man.
On the other hand, being a “man of God” is quite a big deal that often comes with very specific and enormous responsibilities. In many Christian churches men are taught that they are the leaders of the household, that they make the decisions that guide family life. As such men, in the mind’s eye of many Christians, are not only responsible for their own souls but for that of their wives and children as well. Having this much responsibility place a great amount of pressure on Christian men to get it right — to mix their masculine authority with a certain vulnerability.
Such concern for Christian manhood is not a new phenomenon. Us religious studies folks already have a phrase for this macho theology called Muscular Christianity and its origins (at least in modern society) can been traced to England at the turn of the 20th century.
The novels of Thomas Hughes and the Reverend Charles Kingsley were some of the first works that promoted strong muscles as both a major aspect of proper masculinity and a chief component of Christian service. These novels also began a process of politicizing this muscular Christian ideal and ridiculing the effeminate nature of Victorian and upper class visions of manhood.
Victorian manhood was defined by a dichotomy between civilization and savagery. Victorian men prided themselves on their civilized nature, defined by education and intelligence, business acumen, and a refined lifestyle. Furthermore, they held contempt for any activities viewed as uncivilized because such activities were connected to savage and “inferior” races. This left little room for exercise or sport which were both seen as a waste of time, at best, and morally degrading at worst.
For the growing middle class such a vision of masculinity was inadequate. It made men soft and to the medical profession at the time such civilized living was believed to damage nerves and destroy masculine energy—if you don’t use it, you lose it. Such a soft and damaged masculinity could not compete with growing threats to male power, such as the early women’s suffrage movement and a burgeoning immigrant population in both England and, especially, the United States.
On the other hand, these middle class men did not want to abandon “civilized” ways all together, for to do that would be to return to some savage state. No, European and American men needed to find some middle ground and they did that, at least in part, by recasting the image of Jesus and masculinizing the Christian life.
So fathers began to encourage their sons to run amok, to cultivate their “savage” side through sport and exercise. However, they also instilled discipline to harden their Christian will. The YMCA was established, in fact, to help with this endeavor. It linked sport and a virile and muscular manliness to visions of Christian outreach and service. Christian men had to be tough both in body and will to spread the message to an otherwise savage world.
It was not enough to add sports and exercise to Christian service. The church’s whole image needed to be tougher, manlier, and the best way to do that was to rethink the popular understanding of the faith’s main man, Jesus. Thus throughout the early 1900s there was an explosion of literature manning up Jesus. The focus shifted from his tranquil godlike status to his work as a “carpenter,” swinging an ax and building his manly psyche in the process. He was so strong and had such an intimidating presence, commented at least one minister, that no one even thought to challenge him when he cleared the temple of the money changers—a favorite tale of Christians concerned with Jesus’ manliness.
It was not enough for Jesus to be strong. It was also vital for the imperial imaginings of European and American politicians that Jesus be white. While an earlier “whitewashing” of Jesus took place in the Age of Exploration, the Muscular Christian movement at the turn of the 20th century saw Jesus become more European—his hair got lighter and his eyes became blue. Thus, it came to pass that the Lord and Savior of the world became a white, blue-eyed, well built, working-class man.
Illustration by Nathan Burcham. See more at http://natesprojects.