catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 15 :: 2009.07.17 — 2009.07.30


From ManZone to the haka

The college women watched in horror as their male classmates attempted to rip each other to pieces.  As the leader of a short-term missions retreat, I was preparing to speak to them about Isaiah.  I began with a game in which one group, the Assyrians, had to move another group, the Israelites, from one side of the room to another.  Each group was co-ed but it rapidly became an all-male contest.  While no one got hurt and everyone seemed in good spirits at the end, there’s no question that these generally amiable Christian college guys became warriors.

I hated Wild at Heart when it came out.  I listened to some tapes of John Eldredge talking and, as a pacifist, squirmed at all the glorification of militant imagery in pop culture and elsewhere. And yet, attentiveness to uniquely male needs within the Church seems to have found its way into most congregations. I want to describe two very different attempts by two very different churches to foster healthy masculinity by appealing to the same theme: the warrior trope. 

I attend a suburban mega-church in a heartland-America kind of region that is still transitioning, for good or ill, away from its agricultural roots.  The denomination’s version of Boy Scouts is very active and uniformed men and boys are common.  The Wednesday night Men’s Group meets in the “ManZone,” a large room decorated with sports memorabilia and stocked with snack food.  We meet to read scripture and have chili cook-offs and hot-dog eating contests.  The men’s group leader works HARD to get us to engage. Trained to be unexpressive unless the game is on, men are a tough audience, so he constantly cajoles us to repeat little phrases to make sure we are awake and alive. The goal seems to be for us to outwardly express our masculinity in church the way we might in a football game.  Enthusiasm in church is encouraged.  So is “warriorlikeness.”  A pamphlet for the Fall Men’s Group Study features a fierce looking Manga Samurai and the words “The Warrior.”  Our pastor frequently uses martial analogies for Jesus and the church. On Father’s Day, there was a big gleaming motorcycle parked outside the main doors, right next to a kayak.  Sure.  When I got through the doors I saw rifles, with scopes, on display at the men’s table and a flyer for Men’s Adventure Groups, which have included trips to the NRA museum in Washington, D.C.   Interesting.  On Missions Sunday, when several denominational missionaries were introduced to the congregation, only the denomination’s military chaplain got a standing ovation.  Ironically, the denomination was avowedly pacifist from 1917-1967.   I find all the attempts to create a stereotypical testosterone-fest at church kind of silly.  It seems like overcompensating.

Masculinity at a friend’s church, two hours away in Center City Philadelphia, looks very different.  His church is part of a regionally strong peace-church denomination and itself has three small, neighborhood-based congregations, totaling a couple hundred people.  Most of the attendees are under 40, and they fit into the urban hipster or “neo-tribal” sort of demographic.  They have indie film discussions and group drumming classes.  There are no military chaplains.  Most groups are mixed-gender.  But like my suburban mega-church, at their men’s retreats, they talk about the man as warrior.   However, they appeal more to Richard Rohr’s archetypes (King, Warrior, Magician, Lover).  Rather than expressions of public enthusiasm, the goal is to go inward and realize the male energy that God has placed there.  Contemplation is encouraged.  However, in the cloistered space of the men’s retreat, the men took their shirts off and learned and performed together the traditional haka dance of Maori warriors (New Zealand’s indigenous people).  During the dance, the men slap their chests and thighs and make fierce faces.  My friend reports men slapping themselves until brilliant red welts appear and some of them breaking down crying from the emotional release of the experience (not from the welts).  This is more than male bonding.  It is an opportunity for urban males to actualize the warrior impulse in a way that is apparently very powerful.

When I finally read Eldredge’sWild at Heart this year — because my maleness had obviously run amok and I needed to figure stuff out — I begrudgingly realized that I resonated deeply with most of it.  Whether imago dei or sin nature, the warrior is in there and must be dealt with.  The testosterone-laden warrior stuff is compensating, but maybe not overcompensating.  A women’s studies professor I know told me about her attempts to raise her kids sans gender stereotypes.  Her daughter got trucks and wanted nothing to do with them.  Her son got a Barbie, promptly turned Barbie into a gun and shot someone. 

Suburban outdoors enthusiasts and urban hipsters alike have something of the warrior inside them that needs to be expressed.  If churches choose to ignore this, and don’t provide or encourage healthy outlets for it, the Christian community will likely watch from the proverbial sidelines as men find their own.

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