One of the most obnoxious things for me about contemporary evangelicalism has been the neo-masculinist movement of Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and others like them. I think it brings up a lot of things from my past. The reason I sought out a savior in the first place was because I was the opposite of macho. I have always resonated deeply to the vulnerability Paul expressed to the Corinthians: “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling” (1 Cor 2:3). What drove me out of the fellowship groups I joined in college was the way that all the people around me seemed so beautiful and confident. Their perfectly straight white teeth were like gates that barred me from seeing much of anything beneath the surface. I feel like today’s megachurchianity in its ethos of making Jesus attractive and contagious produces a particular vision of Christian manliness as “unflappable, decisive leadership.” If that’s what being a man is, I fail utterly. I have absolute confidence in God’s ability to work through me and show me how to help others find God’s vision for them, but zero confidence in my own ability to puff out my chest and show everyone else that I’m in charge. That’s why I’m always delighted to find teaching like San Francisco pastor Chuck DeGroat’s recent piece challenging men to lose the fear… of their vulnerability.
So let me dive into some of Chuck’s words and respond to them:
What I believe the Bible teaches is that Yahweh, unlike the hyper-masculine gods of the ancient near east, dares to break the rules and enters in – vulnerably – to the pain and sin of humanity. From Genesis 3, God acts in grace, knitting clothing for his ashamed children. Time and again, he breaks through the barrier, vulnerably pledging faithfulness against all odds, amidst a people who continually break trust. In covenant, Yahweh pledges to take the ultimate hit instead of landing the final blow. Over and again, Yahweh says, “Yet, I will return to my people and forgive their sins and restore them,” a knockout blow to a theology of violence, of sacrifice, of entitled position and role.
I really think that many of the “masculinist” Christian guys today would do a lot better with a pagan god like Marduk or Moloch. YHWH is no pansy, but He constantly makes threats to His people that He backs away from. For instance, He lets Moses talk Him out of destroying the Israelites when they make the golden calf. The Bible even says that God “repented” of His anger (Exodus 32:14). That’s not very manly and decisive. Where the masculinists get the most Marduk-sounding is in their depiction of the cross. Instead of finding the power of the cross in God’s self-sacrifice, they want it to represent God’s sadism, forgetting that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of the Father as opposed to a completely different lesser deity whom the Father pours His wrath over. Jesus’ cross does not show us how God the Father crucifies God the Son as a bold expression of His manhood (like Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects murdering his own children). It shows us rather that God the Father allowed Himself to be emasculated by His own people when they crucified His Son in front of Him.
In another paragraph, Chuck talks about how the actions of the father in the prodigal son story epitomize true Biblical manliness:
It’s a story about a man who so loves his son that he is willing to look like a woman to save him. Read that line again. This isn’t me saying this. Read the many great books of Kenneth Bailey, a writer I was first exposed to when his text was assigned in seminary at RTS Orlando. A middle eastern scholar, Bailey lifts the veil, showing that what the father did only a mother in that day would do. In running to his son, he brought shame to himself. In exposing his legs, he looked like a woman. In his display of raw emotion, he’d be cast better as the over-emotional female than the stoic male. This, I suggest, is God’s character revealed in the Incarnation. This is a man without fear, a man who revealed the heart of masculinity (and even more, humanity). The heart of it is this – intimacy.
The vulnerability of the prodigal father is actually what fearlessness looks like. When I’m obsessed with making sure that everyone knows I’m in charge and that I don’t second-guess my choices, then my life is a fearful prison. Just because the outside is concrete and barbed wire and the windows into my soul are narrow, intimidating slits doesn’t mean that the creature on the inside of the exoskeleton isn’t a pathetic little mollusk. Jesus constantly criticizes the Pharisees for projecting a front of togetherness and confidence while their insides are full of “the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Mt 23:27). A real man can be radically vulnerable and absolutely confident that God will give him strength at the same time. That’s what defined the spirituality of King David, the man after God’s own heart. Jonathan Martin of Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC preached a powerful sermon called “Humble Confidence” last summer that helped me to get that concept.
Chuck shares that one of the things we have lost in our day of theology as intellectual proposition is the quest for mystical union with God. Instead of seeing God as a father who throws off his cloak and picks up his tunic to squeeze us into a giant bear hug in the middle of the road, our “manly” approach to theology in late modernity has made God into an obdurate marble statue where we chisel away any features that make Him seem less than perfectly stoic. In centuries past, very manly Christian men wrote some intense, steamy (homo)erotic reflections about the intimacy they gained with God through mystical contemplation. Since this kind of writing flies in the face of everything that the Driscollites tell us about how to be men today, I figured I would close with this choice passage that Chuck quotes from 17th century Scottish Presbyterian pastor Samuel Rutherford, about whom Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Let the world know that Spurgeon held Rutherford’s Letters to be the nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in all the writings of mere men.” Here is part of what made Spurgeon giddy with inspiration:
O that I should ever kiss such a fair, fair, fair face as Christ’s! But I dare not refuse to be loved. There is nothing within me, that is the cause for Him to look upon me and love me. God never gained anything from me. His love cost me nothing. Oh, the many pounds of His love under which I am sweetly pressed!