Monday, February 15, 2010

Jesus, Men, and a Marketing Campaign Gone Wrong

Signing on to Twitter this morning, I read this: "Robert Colquhoun: Where can men find an authentic model of male Christianity?" That led me, through lukecoppen's account, to "Men, sex, and the Church," an article in yesterday's Times Online.

Here's the first paragraph:
"the problem of why there are so few male worshippers was addressed. This problem has been lingering for decades. Why is it that men and Church seem to be polar opposites? I grew up in an environment where it was distinctly unfashionable to be a male Christian. Church was for old ladies: cool, male and Christian were mutually exclusive words. To be a real guy, the mentality was that you had to 'get some' with the girls. Church therefore was emasculating because it prevented you from being a real man...."
(Times Online)
It wasn't all that different, here in America. Not when I was growing up, anyway.

I was born during the Truman administration. By nature and choice I'm a scholar and artist. I'm also a cripple. (More in "Medical Ethics and Human Experimentation: Why I Take it Personally ")

Since I enjoyed reading, and didn't participate in any sport, I had ample opportunity to question my sexual identity. It didn't take too long for me to figure out that I was intensely interested in the opposite sex — which still left open the question of who or what an appropriate male role model would be.

Jesus: "With the Face of a Consumptive Girl"

I was pretty sure it wasn't Jesus. At least not the weird, hippie-like 'meek and mild' fellow I kept running into in pictures and stories.

I had a really hard time fitting that image around the seriously tough man who overturned tables and took over crowd control in the temple. (Mark 11:15, 16, Matthew 21:12) Think about someone walking into a shopping mall and commanding the attention of everybody — successfully — with security and law enforcement nearby, and you may see what I mean.

Then there was the sequence of events leading up to what we celebrate as Good Friday. Yes, it was "meek and mild" of Jesus to walk back to Jerusalem knowing that he would be tortured to death.

Jesus of Nazareth was also astoundingly tough. Remember, after a night of abuse that could have killed someone — he carried his cross at least part of the way to Golgotha. (Matthew 27:27-32, Mark 15:16-22, Luke 23:26, John 19:1, 17 — the accounts aren't all that different: and clearly indicate that Jesus had a really rough day)

That pale, scrawny sort-of-a-guy in the pictures? I had a hard time picturing him lasting as long as Jesus did. Or, for that matter, making himself useful in the workshop, back in Nazareth.

Obviously, I'm not the only person who's noticed a certain lack of fit between some of the conventional Western depictions of Jesus, and the grim realities recorded in the Gospels. In a novel that the author called "A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups," one of the characters was drawn into events which didn't fit her ideas about how the world worked: but were impossible to ignore.

She tried to, though:
"...If it had ever occurred to her to question whether all these things might be the reality behind what she had been taught at school as 'religion,' she had put the thought aside. The distance between these alarming and operative realities and the memory, say, of fat Mrs. Dimble saying her prayers, was too wide....On the one hand, ... the great struggle against an imminent danger; on the other, the smell of pews, horrible lithographs of the Saviour (apparently seven feet high, with the face of a consumptive girl), the embarrassment of confirmation classes, the nervous affability of clergymen...."
(Chapter 11, "That Hideous Strength," C. S. Lewis (1946)) [emphasis mine]
(That word, "consumptive?" In this context, it means "afflicted with or associated with pulmonary tuberculosis" (Princeton's WordNet) Back in the 'good old days,' people with tuberculosis had trouble maintaining body weight, and tended to look like those emaciated fashion models who were 'in' a few decades back.)

From a Man Who Overturned Tables and Commanded the Waves to a Scrawny Girl

Looking at the man depicted in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — and at the weirdly effeminate proto-hippie in 'religious' pictures — I wondered what went horribly wrong?

Several years ago, I ran into an explanation for this strange transformation. It fits what I know of 19th century England — and the American culture that was more closely tied to that of the United Kingdom than it is today.

Briefly (for me):

The Industrial Revolution changed almost every facet of English culture. Including, and perhaps particularly, the family. Before, the wife and mother spent most of her time near the house — and so did her husband. Children saw their fathers a great deal. It may not have been "quality time," but it was time. In copious amounts. 'Meaningful dialog' is nice, but kids learn a great deal from observing their parents, too.

Long Commutes: Nothing New

Then the factory system took the jobs of some men away from the home, to a centralized location — removing the husband and father and father from the home for most (or all) daylight hours.

Parallel developments in business resulted in other men spending most of their time — not in or near their homes, but 'in the city.'

The railroad system made commuting practical — and responsible families saw to it that they raised their children as far away from the toxic air of the cities as possible. (Sound familiar? Things have improved, I think, but most American workers still commute.)

A Mixed Blessing

I do not think that technology is a bad thing, by itself. (June 30, 2009, in another blog)

I know enough about what life was like, before mass production and economies of scale made it possible for most families to own more than one bed. I don't mind living in a world where we don't have to have upwards of 90 percent of the population raising food.

But there were trade-offs. Particularly the way that the Industrial Revolution played out.

You had families with a largely-absent father, where the children learned a great deal more from their mother, than that other parent.

Women are 'Spiritual,' Men aren't?

It's been argued that women 'feel like' being spiritual more than men do. Maybe so. As we learn more about how the human brain is wired, it's become evident that men and women have tended to act differently because, inside their skulls, their brains are configured differently. Turns out, it's not just humans. (July 30, 2009, April 29, 2008, in another blog)

Whatever the biophysical basis of sexual dimorphism in human beings, 19th century pastors noticed that their churches were attended by a whole lot more women than men.

Apparently at least some churches in England operate the same way that many Protestant churches do, here in America: the pastor is hired by the congregation. Or, at least, by a committee formed by the congregation. It's very 'democratic,' and market-driven, but that's not how the Catholic Church operates. We get the priest our bishop assigns to the parish. Sometimes we like the situation, sometimes we don't: but it's the bishop who decides.

Back to the 19th century.

Your sort-of-typical family had the father off somewhere most of the time. Between long hours and hard work, he's often exhausted when he's home. Was it so surprising that he had an attitude toward that church stuff that was somewhere between ambivalence and apathy?

Think about it: let's say you're a man who spends spend the better part of each day in a noisy, smelly factory or a crowded office; and then your wife wants you to spend an hour or more in a closed room full of people you don't know, that maybe hasn't been thoroughly cleaned since James Watt patented his steam engine?!

Anyway, you had churches where most of the active congregation were women. And pastors whose jobs often depended on keeping the congregation satisfied.

Would a sensible, sane pastor — whose income depends on the people he preaches for — tell his audience things they'd just as soon not hear?

Ideally, pastors would rise above such mundane considerations — but when your meal ticket depends on informal opinion polls, I'd say it's 'way too easy to put marketing in front of shepherding.

Apparently, preachers in England — and America — started edging away from those rough, tough aspects of Jesus' life and the Bible in general, and started talking about how spiritual it was to soft, and gentle, and mild, and meek. All the things that proper Victorian ladies were supposed to be. And which were a pretty good fit for what many of the women wanted to hear.

The men? Never mind them. They don't go to church anyway.

So 'being spiritual' started to mean 'being feminine.' I can see where that'd go over real well with some of the ladies. By the new-and-improved definition of 'being spiritual' they were halfway to the goal, just by being born a woman.

For some reason, even more men stopped going to church.

And, by the time I was born, those pictures of seven foot tall scrawny girls with whiskers were close to being the default image of my Lord.

Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild — And More

Over the last century or so, many (most?) Christians in America have heard quite a lot about the "good and gentle Jesus".

And rightly so. The man who is the Son of God, king of patriarchs and courage of martyrs, is good and gentle.

What we haven't heard so much about is the Blood of Christ:
  • That spilled to the ground
  • That flowed at the scourging
  • Dripping from the thorns
  • Shed on the cross
  • The price of our redemption
  • Our only claim to pardon
  • Our blessing cup
  • In which we are washed
  • Torrent of mercy
  • That overcomes evil
  • Strength of the martyrs
  • Endurance of the saints
And so on. If you're a practicing Catholic, you've heard this. I hope. Those gory phrases are from the Litany of the Most Precious Blood. You'll find the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus and Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the same page of the USCCB website.

I am not saying that men are 'more spiritual' than women — or better than women. God created humanity to be men and women. (September 26, 2009) Men aren't women, women aren't men — and we're all creatures of God, made to know, love, and serve God: and come to the happiness of Paradise. (January 5, 2009) But we're not all the same.

Personally, I think that'd be boring: but that's another topic.

That male role model? Jesus and his disciples, through the millennia, provide quite a few good ones. Take Saint Lawrence as an example. As he was being grilled over a slow fire, he said 'turn me over, I'm done on this side!' Not in English, of course — but I'm confident that's a fairly good translation. Guts? Bravery? Even bravado? Yeah, I think you could say that.

Lawrence the deacon wound up on the grill because he'd done what a local authority had ordered him to do: bringing the treasure of the Church to the Prefect. The Prefect of Rome didn't like what he saw, to put it mildly.

But that's another story.

Related posts:

A tip of the hat to lukecoppen, on Twitter, for the heads-up on the article that got me started with this post.

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.