You might have seen the promo video for the Stronger Men’s Conference coming up on April 13-14 in Springfield, Missouri. It features commandos rappelling onto the stage, an MMA cage fight, monster trucks, and a guy firing semi-automatic pistols. In the video you can hear one of the speakers announcing that while the devil likes to make strong men weak, God loves to make weak men strong.
There’s been quite a backlash to this promo and the whole premise that strong men are into all this stuff, as well as woodchopping, firestarting, and motorbikes (which feature in an earlier Stronger Men’s Conference promo).
Leaving aside the concerns I have about a Christian men’s conference featuring gun play and violence, I have no problem with the fact that a lot of guys love monster trucks and starting bonfires. In the video, NFL players lob footballs into the crowd, and there’s a basketball player getting air, and a drum circle and jets of fire on stage. Cool.
My concern (aside from the cage fight and the guns) is the assumption that all this epitomizes masculinity. That to be a strong man you have to be into all this. More than that, to be a godly strong man you should be into all this. I get that those Christian men who do like chopping wood and watching daredevil aerial stunts on motorbikes want a gathering where they can whoop and holler and love Jesus together. But what about men whose pastime preferences don’t include cage fighting?
I understand that the whole definition of gender is currently being debated and that we hear voices saying gender is fluid or its an abstract concept or an outmoded binary, and I understand that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. In times like these, conservative people tend to fall back to make an even stronger restatement of the way things were. More specifically, those Christian men who like dirt bikes and guns feel marginalized or mocked. An event like Stronger Men’s Conference is an outlet, a means for expressing their anxieties, and gathering with likeminded men.
But equating this stuff with strength and courage and saying this is what all Christian men want is dangerous. It is a capitulation to the lazy gender stereotypes that dog our society as a whole.
Those lazy stereotypes include such assumptions as the general inability of men to express emotion, or go deep in relationships, or to exercise intuition, or to be other-centered. We are bombarded with television comedies and advertisements that play up these distinctions that women are wise in matters of the heart, but men are emotional klutzes. Women do relationship, men are good at stuff that requires physical strength and confidence (although not even always good at that).
When the church starts mirroring these stereotypes and even baptizing them with some kind of biblical imprimatur, we are being shaped by the world. If the church fosters a masculine stereotype that frees men from developing emotional depth and from communicating openly and with vulnerability, we are conforming with our society, not being formed by the renewal of our minds and hearts by the Holy Spirit.
I know that monster trucks and rappelling commandos excite some guys (as they no doubt also appeal to some women), but to be a stronger man you don’t have to dig that stuff. In saying this, I’m reflecting on more than just Stronger Men’s Conference. So many men’s ministries seem to be capitulating to the assumptions our culture makes about manhood, not about the multi-faceted, beautifully complex vision of humanity presented in Scripture. Here are a few reasons I’m concerned about lazy stereotyping in men’s ministries.
1. IT’S LIMITING
A famous report into how the media presents masculine stereotypes found that boys were consistently presented with male role models on screen who were emotionally shallow and relationally inept. Although it found this stereotype was presented with five variations on the theme. Those types are:
The Joker: The funny guy is very popular with boys, but the researchers found the stereotype reinforces laughter as a “mask of masculinity.” They said, “A potential negative consequence of this stereotype is the assumption that boys and men should not be serious or emotional.” A variation on this type is the buffoon, the bumbling male, usually a father figure, who is full of good intentions but whose ineptitude in relationships, domestic chores and work reinforces the stereotype.
The Jock: According to the report, the tough guy on film is willing to “compromise his own long-term health; he must fight other men when necessary; he must avoid being soft; and he must be aggressive.” It’s through these displays of power and strength that the jock wins the approval of other men and the adoration of women. This stereotype is presented negatively if the jock is too arrogant in his strength and charisma.
The Strong Silent Type: This character focuses on “being in charge, acting decisively, containing emotion, and succeeding with women.” This stereotype reinforces the assumption that men and boys should always be in control, and that talking about one’s feelings is a sign of weakness.
The Big Shot: The researchers found this kind of character is defined by his professional status. He is the “epitome of success, embodying the characteristics and acquiring the possessions that society deems valuable.” This stereotype suggests that a real man must be economically powerful and socially successful.
The Action Hero: This kind of male character is “strong, but not necessarily silent. He is often angry. Above all, he is aggressive in the extreme and, increasingly over the past several decades, he engages in violent behavior.”
All in all, these five types are telling boys the same thing. Men don’t do emotions, relationships, share feelings, express doubt, or show weakness. Men like dumb fun like monster trucks and aerial bike stunts. We’re teaching boys that men are aggressive, independent, tough, dominant and in control. Can you see how limiting this is?
2. IT’S NOT BIBLICAL
You won’t find a sustained definition of masculinity and femininity in the Bible. There are a number of passages that discuss the preferred behaviors of both women and men, such as Titus 2, where Paul says, “Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good” (Tit 2:2-3). But we can’t read this as a discussion of gender differences. Men should also be advised not to be addicted to much wine, and women should be temperate and self-controlled.
Likewise, consider the oft-quoted Proverbs 31 passage about the “wife of noble character” and tell me which of the characteristics mentioned there don’t also apply to men.
The Bible presents us with a marvelous array of characters, both male and female, that display an astonishing (and comforting) breadth of characteristics.
I could definitely imagine Samson or Jehu or David’s “mighty men” loving monster trucks and fire jets. But sweet, sensitive Jonathan, timid Gideon, and melancholy Jeremiah wouldn’t be so enamored of it all, would they?
The Bible presents some women, like Ruth and Esther, who are forced to use their beauty to fulfil their destiny. But we also meet Deborah and Jael who, I’m pretty sure, would want to join the paramilitary rappellers onstage.
The Bible presents the elements of godly character and calls both women and men to embrace them. As Kaitlyn Schiess writes,
“Scripture offers us beautiful examples of masculinity and femininity that push back against harmful stereotypes: we read about men writing poems and songs and women running businesses and bankrolling Jesus’ disciples. We have every theological reason to celebrate the goodness of relationships and the dignity of work for both genders.”
There’s no particular kind of man or preferred kind of woman held up to us in Scripture as the epitome of all that we should aspire to become, except Jesus, which brings me to my third point.
3. IT’S NOT CHRISTLIKE
I don’t mean to suggest that the Stronger Men’s Conference and its organizers, nor the men who like the stereotypes represented by that conference, are not Christlike. I hope I’ve been clear in saying I think it’s great that some guys who like that stuff will get to hang out in Springfield. But I am saying that reinforcing the cultural stereotype that all strong men must avoid being soft and must be aggressive, actional, unfeeling and efficient goes against the example we see in Christ.
Jesus displayed an extraordinary sensitivity toward those around him. He had a remarkable empathy for the lost and suffering. He understood what people were going through, frequently sensing not only their pain or suffering or grief, but also perceiving their objections and struggles with his teaching. He showed a gentle patience toward both their misunderstanding and their arrogance.
Jesus included women in his band of followers. He praised women as examples of faith and persistence and curiosity. He was strong enough to buck convention and resist any urge to conform to the limiting mores of his time.
Jesus refused to protect himself against pain. He expressed his vulnerability and anguish, grieving openly, sweating blood, shedding tears. In the end, Jesus was beside himself, crying loudly to God, looking repeatedly to his friends for comfort, praying for an escape from death.
He refused to defend himself against his accusers. He submitted to weak, vacillating men and underwent a humiliating and tortuous death. Even in his resurrection he revealed himself first to women and then to the male disciples. He was tender with Thomas’s unbelief and gentle with Peter’s reinstatement.
Is it possible to be Christlike while enjoying NFL games, monster truck shows and starting bonfires? Of course. As it’s possible to be Christlike while enjoying crochet and attending art exhibitions and ballet recitals. What Christ models for us is love, compassion, gentleness, kindness, forgiveness and empathy. His strength is shown through ‘weakness’ not through outward displays of aggression or physical prowess. He knows sadness and pain, rejection and death and models a whole new way of being human for those who follow him.
As Ron Rolheiser puts it,
It’s better to be sad than bitter, better to be hurting than hard, better to shed tears than be indifferent, better to taste death than never risk living, better to feel rejection than never to have loved, better to groan in interior anguish than to prematurely resolve tension, and better, for the sake of love, family, faith, and commitment, to sometimes look the fool, the needy one, the simpleton, than to always successfully hide what’s most true inside us so as to be the one who never has a hair, a feeling, or an opinion that’s out of place.