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A Man’s Man or Everybody’s Jesus? The Problem of Re-Masculinizing Christ

I follow a lot of religion-related accounts on Twitter. Huffington Post Religion, Oxford Press American Religious History, American Academy of Religion, and so on. I recently began following OnFaith, and an article they tweeted this morning had got me thinking about gender and Christianity (Disclaimer: my Church History class this week is focusing on gender and sexuality, so I’ve had this topic on the brain…Okay, full disclaimer: I am going to write my Master’s thesis on sex and Christianity, so I have this topic on the brain all the time).

Back to OnFaith. John McDougall wrote a piece titled, “7 Arguments Against a Pretty-Boy Jesus.” Before engaging the content, I want to point to the language used just in the title. The phrase “pretty-boy” is clearly negatively used here, which indicates that McDougall is about the throw it down and argue that Jesus is a “real man.” McDougall’s opening paragraph is this:

Picture the Jesus of most Sunday School lessons. What do you see? Chances are, you envision someone a lot like Mister Rogers — kind, gentle, and compassionate. A bearded therapist who pats Timmy on the head and tells him to be “a good little boy.” A handsome prince with perfect hair and impeccable manners. A preppy pacifist who always did what was expected and was loved by everyone.

This is not the real Jesus, says McDougall. Here are McDougall’s seven arguments of why Jesus is not a pretty-boy, in order:

  1. He grew up in tough circumstances.
  2. He hung out with rough people.
  3. He challenged societal norms.
  4. He picked fights.
  5. He confronted injustice.
  6. He stood up to lynch mobs.
  7. He faced torture without fear.

What is most interesting to me is the identification of these behaviors with hyper-masculinity. Reading this article I have now learned that all these things I thought were characteristic of Christians (standing up to hatred, challenge social norms and structures, confronting injustice) are actually characteristic of a real man. As he articulates each point, McDougall repeatedly uses the image of a preppy, clean-cut, peaceful man in stark contrast to the rugged, tough, country boy Jesus really was. McDougall goes so far as to say, “The meek Messiah is neither accurate, nor effective. We need something more.”

McDougall’s article reads like literature from the nineteenth century efforts to masculinize Christianity: women have femininized the Christian church and Jesus, and those pretty boys are buying in to this flowery faith; Jesus’ masculinity must be redeemed if he is to truly be our Savior. By allowing women and pretty-boys to run our churches, we are emasculating men and creating a culture of pansies. These are the same arguments, only superficially updated.

As a woman and as a friend to many men, I find McDougall incredibly sexist and damaging. To argue for any one image of gender is oppressive to those who do not identify with the “norm,” and when Jesus is made spokesperson of the “real man,” Christianity has closed the doors to millions of men and women. If McDougall took out his gendered language but kept his arguments, this blog post would be very different. Yes, Jesus was all those things McDougall pointed to. Yet why does this make Jesus the model of a real man? Is it really so radical to associate these characteristics with being Christian rather than being male?

Sure, Jesus is a rugged man, a country boy, a warrior; Jesus is also a pretty-boy, clean cut, peaceful; Jesus is also nurturing, caring, loving. Jesus is Jesus, God Incarnate, everybody’s Jesus.

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