Welcome To MachoChurch: Medievalism and Evangelical Patriarchy

Heath Mooneyhan, pastor of the "Most Masculine Church in America"

Heath Mooneyhan, pastor of the “Most Masculine Church in America”

The response to my summer series on the medievalism of John Eldredge has me thinking more widely about the role of medievalism in present-day American evangelical culture. Even my original article on Eldredge only covers part of the h medievalism in his work, concentrating as it does on his use of William Wallace. I mean to do another post, soon, covering Eldredge’s other medievalisms, primarily on the way both Wild at Heart and its companion volume, Captivating rely (both consciously and unconsciously) on tropes from medieval romance. One thing I’m sure I’ll focus on, there, draws from other recent work on contemporary medievalisms, working in part from Helen Young’s fascinating observations on the ways in which medievalism is often deployed as a way of “naturalizing” numerous racist and sexist attitudes. The general idea, there, is that reference to the Middle Ages has become, for many, a strategy for legitimizing both racism and sexism by imagining a medieval Europe as a “purer” time, one in which white-skinned men were free to exercise their God-given right to domination. Placing that situation in something meant to read as a historical past, then, seems to set an additional layer of legitimacy under such arguments: it’s a way of saying “this is the natural state of human relationships from which feminism (among other cultural phenomena) has led us astray.” Of course, the Middle Ages themselves weren’t like that at all, and the very romances from which much of such rhetoric is ultimately drawn critique the cult of masculine violence (on very Christian grounds) at least as often as they promote it.

As I’ve been working on these ideas, though, I’ve been running across numerous other deployments of medievalism-inflected expressions of “Christian Masculinity,” as well as numerous commentaries and critiques of the same. So, while I’m working on the larger argument, I thought I’d share, along the way, some of the interesting and crazy things I’m coming across:

  • One of my favorite Christian bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, recently published a review by Nate Pyle of the documentary Fight Church about a congregation geared toward Christian males that centers–no joke–on Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competition. Pyle wonders whether this isn’t an indication that the American church is too influence by American cultural ideas about masculinity. Looking through some of that church’s materials, however, I can’t help but notice that it’s infused with the language of a “warrior” mentality that has its roots in the Germanic, pagan warrior ethic (something the poet of Beowulf struggles with). That tradition has been preserved and filtered through later medieval romance and the Cult of Chivalry, through 19th century romantic novels such as Walter Scott’s, and then through James Fenimore Cooper’s portings of Scott’s knightly warrior ethic into an American setting that ultimately give rise to the American Western (of which, I would argue, Braveheart is an example, with swords and kilts standing in for six-shooters and chaps, smearing blue woad onto The Outlaw Josey Wales).
  • Speaking of Evans, she also has an interesting take on the fall of popular evangelical megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll, another evangelical leader who apparently posted a number of misogynistic rants with the pseudonym “William Wallace II,” proving that Eldredge is not the only masculinist evangelical leader to engage in the strange adoption of that fourteenth-century figure as a sort of poster-child for “authentic” masculinity.
  • In additional craziness, there’s been some attention in the Christian blogosphere lately to what was the putative most masculine church in America before its pastor got a DUI last week. The church was apparently known for its unapologetic misogynist banter and the gun collection in the basement (onward Christian soldiers, I guess).
  • Meanwhile, of all places, a relatively conservative Christian publication, First Things, turns out to be the source, via Matthew Block of the past month’s most cogent critique of the aforementioned church, and especially of the idea of baptising the “warrior identity” as an aspect of Christian masculinity.

I’ll keep posting relevant material as it comes across my desk–partially as a way of keeping track of it myself–but feel free to make me aware of what comes across yours!

Written with StackEdit

The Viral Life of John Eldredge’s Medievalism

Wild_at_HeartAn interesting thing happened over the summer. I found an audience I didn’t know was there.

When I decided to publish something that began life as a more academic article on my blog, I had no idea what the results might be. I simply knew that I wanted to do something with what had been sitting on my hard drive as a “back burner” project for several years for which I hadn’t found a publication venue that seemed appropriate. Little did I know that what I thought was a fairly esoteric project would turn out to be far and away the most widely-circulated thing I’ve ever written–and that includes my book.

Shortly after I published the first installment of my series on John Eldredge, I mentioned it on the facbook page for Christians for Biblical Equality, since I thought folks there might be interested, and there was a moderate but satisfying spike in page views. More recently, after the whole thing had been published, a blogger over at Slacktivist, one of the Patheos blogs, linked to the series, and things really spiked, with page views pushing a thousand just that first day (and they’ve continued at a lesser, but steady, rate ever since). Now, the rate of view I’m getting is certainly small potatoes compared to more mainstream blogs, but, for an obscure medievalist who likes to talk about things like obscure medieval Latin chronicles and medieval letters to the Pope, the readers of that blog series constitute the largest audience anything I’ve written has ever reached.

What’s also astonishing to me is the geographic breadth of where the views are coming from: WordPress allows one to see the countries from which views originate, and while the majority have been from the US, there have been a surprising number of views from the UK, Canada, and Austrailia, as well as views from Spain, Ireland, the Czech Republic, and even a few from the Republic of Korea. It’s hard to know exactly what’s generating these statistics, but assuming that at least a lot of them represent actual people viewing the blog pages, I’m surprised, first, by the breadth of recogniction of John Eldredge’s ideas. I’d thought of Wild at Heart as a phenomenon that existed primarily inside contemporary American Evangelicalsm, and not something that had any real global reach. Perhaps I was wrong? And what would that mean? What made a critique of what I thought was a book only popular within a limited American subculture interesting, apparently, to so many across the pond? (If you are someone not from the US who read any of those posts, I would really love to get some comments from you about how you found the article and why it interested you!).

I had also wondered, before publishing the piece here, whether the whole Wild At Heart phenomenon within American Evangelicalism was more or less passe. The book, after all, has been around since 2001, and it wouldn’t be the first evangelical “pop culture” fad to sweep through various American mainstream protestant churches only to seem hopelessly dated even to its former participants a few years later (Promise Keepers, anyone?). The American interest in the article certainly suggests that it’s still a pretty pervasive phenomenon even nearly fifteen years out.

Responses and comments have also been interestingly varied. One commenter seemed angered by the mere idea that one might critique Eldredge at all ( which I found very strange: why would one who supposedly values WIlliam Wallace’s manly propensity to “pick a fight” be so sensitive to some relatively gentle critical analysis?). Others seemed quite interested in the way Eldredge’s ideas feed into the even larger (and more dangerous) phenomenon of patriarchy and even domestic violence in the American evangelical community. A colleague of mine even stopped by my office the other day, wondering if I might contribute a chapter to an anthology he’s thinking of editing on the subject of religion and domestic violence (game on, Andy!). One astute commenter on Patheos also, quite rightly, took me to task on inadvertently falling into some of the same language of “soft patriarchy” I was trying to counteract, noting that, “In his post Interlude: Why I Actually Respect John Eldredge, Bruce talks about feeling “out of place” due to “nice guy expectations” and then goes on to argue for “the necessity of taking risks, of having a genuine sense of purpose, and of pushing beyond the merely acceptable in order to become more genuine.” But Bruce never mentions that the need for risk, genuineness, and a sense of purpose is not just a male need.” Well said, sir–I quite agree on all counts, and stand corrected.

Most interesting to me is the idea that there seems to be an audience for more broad reflection, perhaps paralleling the recent discussion on Jeffrey Cohen’s blog on race, diversity, and medievalism, on the ways in which medievalism plays into what, at least according to Washington Post columnist Michelle Boorstein is a coming “showdown over gender roles” among American evangelicals. Others like Helen Young (whose article is linked above) have usefully begun to examine the role of images of the Middle Ages as a sort of mark of authenticity in a number of racist and sexist discourses. The idea of the Middle Ages as a time of greater authenticity, a time when “men were men,” seems a common trope for those who, among other things, wish to legitimize their own racist ideas by imagining a more racially “pure” time (which of course was not the case in the Middle Ages at all). As Eldredge’s book shows, too, not to mention the recently uncovered misogynistic rants of the now-fallen Mars Hill megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll, who signed those rants about the “pussification” of evangelical men under the pseudonym “William Wallace II,” the deployments of the Middle Ages within evangelicalism in ways meant to legitimize a strong and possibly violent patricarchal ideology are most certainly worth more study.