Tag Archives: Jesus

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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Jesus Freak: Come and See

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Over the next five weeks, I’ll be spending my Tuesday evenings discussing Sara Miles’ Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead with a group of adults – young (ish), old, retired Methodist ministers (there’s like 6 of them!), lawyers – who all want to dig deeper into what it means to be a Jesus Freak (which I will get back to soon). We met for the first time this past Tuesday and I left excited for the conversation we’ll be having as we all work through this book. There is so much to talk about in Miles’ work, so each Friday for the next five weeks I’ll be posting about the previous week’s reading. We kick off today with the introduction and first chapter, “Come and See.” Ready?

I began this book with zero knowledge of Sara Miles, so here’s a little background information I learned on Tuesday – Miles is the founder and director of The Food Pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Espicopal saramilesChurch in San Francisco, who was raised an atheist and had a powerful conversion experience at the age of 46, and has been in a committed relationship with her wife Martha for more than 15 years. Now if that doesn’t peak your interest, you can stop reading here.

On the third page of Jesus Freak, Miles gets right into it. She asks, “…what would it mean to live as if you – and everyone around you – were Jesus, and filled with his power? To just take his teachings literally, go out the front door of your home, and act on them?” (ix).
This is the central question – what does it mean to be a Jesus Freak?  When we met on Tuesday, we talked about what images came to mind when we heard to phrase “Jesus Freak.” The most common among the group? Hippie. Pushy Evangelical. 60s and 70s. The dc Talk song from 1995.

I immediately thought of middle school, when being a Jesus Freak was super cool in my social circles. I have to disclose that I was home schooled, from 4th grade through my high school graduation, and very, very involved in my youth group (a downtown social justice and mission-minded congregation). To me, 6th and 7th grades were times when you weren’t Christian but you loved Jesus, and your religious beliefs on MySpace read “Follower of Jesus” or “Jesus Freak.” Now, I associate that time with the superficial nature of teenagers who just want to be in with their peers. For me, my peers were mostly Christians who flaunted it (but only if they didn’t have to explain why or what they really believed). So Sara Miles trying to reclaim “Jesus Freak” is an exciting and daunting task.

Though there is so much to talk about in the first 30 pages, there are three things I want to touch on here. The first is an amazingly profound statement – “If Jesus is about anything, it’s the inconvenient truth that a spiritual life is a physical life” (xviii). Just think about that for a second. Miles is saying that Christians (and I would argue religious people of most any tradition) cannot just get by on inner spirituality. Physical acts of humility, justice, mercy, and love are just as important. We have to interact with God’s world to continue to walk forward with God.

The second point brings up the outcasts in our society – the homeless, the hungry, the minority (religious and racial/ethnic), the sick. Miles reminds us that people like Mary, an unmarried teen who gave birth to Jesus Christ in stable, and John the Baptist, a madman who baptized the Son of God in the river Jordan – “improper figures, completely unauthorized by the religious authorities” (6) – were chosen to share the love and power of the divine. The outcast and the stranger, existing on the fringes of society, bring the holy into the profane spaces of a stable or a river.

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This relates perfectly to the last statement I want to talk about, which is the idea that victims are necessary because they “define the center” (10). Societies and religions need the outcast so they know they are righteous and normal, reflecting the dangerous impulse we as humans feel to “Other” those who are not like us. We all do it. I’ve “Othered” people of different socioeconomic statuses than myself (and usually those of higher status, to be honest). But Jesus, through the many parables he tells and the many acts of mercy and love he performs, shows us that it is not up to us to decide whom God loves. We, as mere humans, do not get to choose whether that person standing on the corner or the CEO in the cushy corner office are “normal” or whether they are part of the family. No one, not Christians nor Muslims nor Hindus nor Atheists, have the authority to make that decision. And the figure of Jesus sends that message loud and clear.

Obviously, I could go on for hours. Sara Miles is a wonderful writer and Jesus Freak is full of powerful statements and questions. I’ll stop for today, but I’ll be back next Friday with more from Sara Miles and Jesus Freak.

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