I’ve only seen my father cry once. It was this past November, when my mother’s cardiologist informed us that they had found major blockages in three of the arteries in her heart. She would have to get stents put in, and possibly a pacemaker. It would mean a long road to recovery, but we were lucky that we caught these conditions before she had a fatal heart attack.
Dad didn’t cry in the consultation room. He was somber, but put on a brave face for my mother as we returned to her hospital room to get her situated at her angiogram. It was only in the moments when the nurses were transferring her to her bed, when the family stepped outside to give her some space, that I looked up to see my 60-something father wiping tears from his eyes.
For many in my generation—the children of conservative evangelical Baby Boomers—this sort of story is not all that unusual. Many of us grew up with fathers who were stoic providers for the family, loving but afraid of showing too much emotion. In hoping to pass their faith on to their children, the Baby Boomers have passed along stereotypes and rules about the performance of masculinity. The embrace of purity culture has hardened these rules into biblical dictums about manhood and womanhood, creating boxes for people based on their assigned gender at birth.
Each spring, the Christian blogosphere is aflame with post after post urging women to be wary of the upcoming swimsuit season. Out of the desire to protect our fragile Christian brothers, who are supposedly wired to be more visual than us women, we must cover any bits of titillation. We should be careful about how we sit, how we carry our purses, how we eat fruit (you should break a banana in half rather than just biting the end because otherwise men think of oral sex).
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Purity culture and its sisters—modesty and rape culture—are dependent on specific perspectives about how men and women behave and interact with each other. In particular, men are barely restrained sex addicts who are incapable of stopping themselves should they find themselves alone with a woman. When it comes to sex, the responsibility to say no, to stop forward momentum, is all on the woman.
At the same time, women are emotional creatures, the “weaker vessels” that need protection from the world. This protection comes in the form of the men they marry, who are theologically burdened with protecting and providing for their family. A truly biblical Christian man, pastor Mark Driscoll of Seattle’s Mars Hill megachurch writes, is one who not only provides for his sons, but for his sons’ sons. Men are simultaneously unbridled sexual beasts and protectors and providers of the delicate structure of the American family. They are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
At a recent summit of the Education and Religious Liberty Committee of the Southern Baptist convention, pastor JD Greear commented in a keynote speech that pastors (naturally, male) should be careful about being alone with women who are not their wives—to the point where they shouldn’t even carpool together, even if it’s the most convenient method. Men are so vulnerable, so subject to barely restrained sexual desire, that being alone with a woman for five minutes in a van is a great risk.
This is the harsh truth of misogynistic purity culture: No one comes out unscathed. The difference here is that men, while being treated as sex-fueled robots, are also called upon to be leaders who are violently protective of their families.
In a 2007 blog post about why women shouldn’t serve in combat, evangelical Reformed pastor John Piper said that men are biologically wired to be defenders. A man who doesn’t step into the line of fire to defend a woman is going against God’s Word for him. He uses an example of a man and a woman who are walking late at night when a person wielding a knife attacks them. The woman has a black belt, and the man has no fighting skills.
In Piper’s eyes, it would be sin for the man to step back and let the woman defend the both of them, despite the fact that it increases chances of survival. A man, Piper proposes, who allows a woman to come to his defense is allowing himself to be emasculated. Men should be ready to defend, with violence if necessary, “irrespective of competency,” as Piper states.
Similarly violent examples and metaphors are dotted throughout evangelical purity culture. In Wild at Heart, John Eldredge casts men as knights rescuing their damsels in distress. In a now-deleted set of posts about “How to Live a Great Love Story,” author Donald Miller said that men should be prepared to comfort their wives while holding a baseball bat behind their backs. Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll is fond of describing the Second Coming as a violent Jesus with a sword and tattoos down his legs—and Driscoll does not shy away from proclaiming his “manly” love of sports like mixed martial arts.
Even churches are hosting mixed martial arts and fight club nights for men’s groups, in an effort to reconnect men with a visceral, God-given masculinity.
In doing research for my forthcoming book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity (due out in February 2015), I interviewed men and women from all over the United States about their experiences growing up in purity culture. Many of the men I spoke to expressed unease with the ways in which purity culture portrayed men. Many simply didn’t feel that violence was an appropriate expression of Christlikeness, especially since many of Jesus’ teachings can be interpreted as being in favor of pacifist action.
Men also felt like being forced into sometimes violent roles made it harder for them to connect with other people. Author and social scientist Brené Brown writes in I Thought It Was Just Me that men live with a particularly shameful tension and posturing about being able to “kick that person’s ass” or to express their masculinity in violent ways.
Such forced masculinity is often a barrier to the emotional intelligence and empathy necessary for functioning well in society and for advocating for and with marginalized peoples.
Evangelical masculinity defines itself by a series of contradictions. Men must be willing to violently protect their home and their castle. But their psyches are so weak that they must ask women to cover up in order to keep them from lusting. They must not show weakness by betraying unmanly emotions, but they must be the spiritual leader of the home—a position that requires deep empathy and compassion.
This artificial version of masculinity, which constrains and boxes men into a specific gendered role, “irrespective of competency,” results in men who see violence as an adequate expression of Christlikeness, who extend their duty to protect into violent terroristic actions like clinic bombings and shootings and spousal abuse.
Such masculinity appears to be a response to the supposed emasculation of feminism, a callback to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, when “men were men” and women “knew their place.” In an attempt to quell the growing uncertainty about the evangelical man’s place in a world where gender and sexuality are fluid, evangelicalism appears to have clamped down on the “biblical” ideas of what men and women are and what role they play. Such definition is bathed in holiness language, discussion about how those who follow “biblical” gender roles take the Bible more seriously.
But such versions of masculinity are the creation of 20th century upheaval and uncertainty. The unfeeling protector who is unable to control himself around “sexy” women is a created response to the 20th century’s sexual revolutions. Indeed, in Victorian times, just 100 years before, it was women who were considered unable to control their lust and therefore were unfit for leadership. Now, it seems, such unbridled lust indicates a virility that makes a man especially fit to be a leader.
Masculinity and femininity are social constructs. But in the church, the uncertainty that extends from such constructs has led to a boxed in vision of gender that helps no one.