Should our Christian faith become more masculine?

04-11-2022

Opinion

Jacob Hoekman, RD

Photo RD

Loving your enemies? Never. "Loving someone who wants to kill me seems to me completely contrary to human nature." That was what Abdelkarim from Syria told me. He used to fight for one of the Syrian jihadist groups.

I think that Abdelkarim got on well with the far-right Dutch politician Thierry Baudet on that point. But I can no longer ask him because Abdelkarim died in Aleppo while fighting his enemies for that city. The jihadist thus received his deep desire.

Us vs them

Journalist Jakob Hoekman researches history to find answers to difficult questions related to the news

I was reminded of him when the leader of the far-right party Forum for Democracy, Thierry Baudet, was recently in the news for his statements on (among other things) the Christian faith. That faith is an "ideology of weaklings", he said. A religion for "nerds." A faith where "masculinity" is lacking, where you are not even allowed to fight back properly when attacked.

That kind of statement is neither new nor only typical of some right-wing cultural Christians. You might hear them from the mouths of jihadists too. The differences between these two groups could hardly be more significant. Still, the remarkable similarity is that both boast of masculinity that they would possess but that the Gospel would not.

Enough has been said recently about how Baudet's statements, willingly or unwillingly, strike at the heart of the Gospel. Yes, Christ came for losers and not for people who can manage themselves just fine. Yes, God's power is accomplished in weakness. Yes, we must talk about the cross again and again because herein lies our only hope.

But isn't this also a theme that deserves some more serious attention? What is actually true of the alleged lack of masculinity in the Christian faith that both some jihadists and right-wing extremists point out?

It is too easy to dismiss that criticism with a single one-liner. For that, the facts are too telling. For indeed, more men than women leave the church. For instance, significantly more churchgoers are women than men, the research agency Pew calculated. Also, far more women consider religion "very important" in their lives than men. And this difference is specific to the Christian faith; in Islam, this gender gap does not exist.

Now the question is whether this difference between men and women has always existed in Christianity. In other words, is there something essentially unmanly in Christianity, as Baudet thinks, following, among others, the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche?

Historians can quickly answer that question with a confident no. Just look at the first centuries of history of the Christian church. During the manifold times of persecution, it took a lot of courage and perseverance to swim against the current of time and follow Christ. Becoming a Christian was certainly not unmanly - quite the contrary. As far as can be traced, there was no gender divide then.

Bride

When did this change? First of all: in large parts of the church, this has never changed. The Eastern churches traditionally emphasise Christ as the risen Victor, the Pantocrator Who rules the world in glory. These are titles associated with masculinity. And believe it or not, in Eastern churches, the gender gap is much less prevalent.

Contrastingly, in the Western church, the personal relationship of believers with Christ became much more central. Several scholars point all the way back to the Middle Ages for the origin of this notion when bridal mysticism first became popular. According to researchers such as Roman Catholic scholar Leon Podles and US author David Murrow, the lyrical language of bridal mysticism is one of the reasons why the Western church gradually became more and more feminine.

Mystics like Bernard of Clairveaux started to apply the Biblical images of Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as the bride to individuals - an application that would endure through the ages. The fusion of the soul with Christ as drawn in bridal mysticism became a central theme among the Puritans and in the Dutch Further Reformation.

Besides all the good of this, Podles says there is also a but to it: men would feel less at home with this approach. And that applies especially to the later, more modern excesses of this individual 'love line': church songs that are barely distinguishable from secular love songs, sermons that are mainly about how loved we are and an overall atmosphere that is more about the Lamb than the Lion.

If a church wants to correct that, how should it do so? The problem is that such corrections tend to take you from bad to worse. Then you end up with a faith in which Jesus plays the heroic role of an American movie star and in which His followers are especially encouraged to brandish weapons. That image of militant masculinity is alive and well in American evangelical circles, researcher Kristin Kobes du Mez has shown in her book "Jesus and John Wayne".

Or, even worse, you get a Christian faith that may be masculine but at the same time uncritically goes along with the partly Nietzsche-inspired ideas of the Nazis, as the Deutsche Christen (German Christian) did in World War II.

Both the American and German examples show the same problem. At any given time, the cultural notion of masculinity is used as a blueprint for theology. Then, it is crucial that we first carefully calibrate our idea of masculinity against the Bible before the sleeves are rolled up, and the muscles are steeled.

This article was translated by CNE.news and published by the Dutch daily Reformatorisch Dagblad on October 29, 2022.

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