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Kristin Kobes Du Mez is Assistant Professor of History at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan with a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame, where she studied American religious history and women's history. Her upcoming book on Katharine Bushnell and Lee Anna Star, The Forgotten Woman’s Bible, is due to be published in 2011 by Westminster John Knox. Prof Du Mez was recently awarded a grant to support the writing of the book which will explore the work of Bushnell and Starr, situating them in their historical context and examining how their work continues to speak to Christians today in America and in the global Church. (She is also doing research on another project, a study of American evangelicals, masculinity, and militarism)

Married with two children, Prof. Du Mez explains, "I named my 1-year-old Eva Lucia in honor of Eve, inspired by Bushnell's interpretation of Genesis. (For equity purposes, my 3-year-old son's name is Zachary Izaac--meaningful in its own right, but not connected to Bushnell)."

The following article is reprinted with the author's permission from The Gospel and Culture Project

Beyond Knights and Damsels: Evangelicals and Gender

by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Walk into any Christian bookstore and you’ll be confronted with a barrage of titles promising to guide men to “authentic” masculinity. The most prominent of these, John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, has sold over one million copies, spawned a small industry of Wild at Heart companion products, and inspired a bevy of other evangelical writers to offer their own (often strikingly similar) solutions to the contemporary “crisis” of masculinity. These works not only present “timeless” and allegedly biblical definitions of masculinity and femininity, they also place gender difference at the heart of the Christian faith.

Gender difference occurs “at the level of the soul,” Eldredge writes. “Men and women are made in the image of God as men or as women…There is a masculine heart and a feminine heart, which in their own ways reflect or portray to the world God’s heart.”¹ The masculine heart longs for adventure, risk, and danger. God made men in his image to conquer and protect. Every man, according to Eldredge, seeks a Beauty to rescue.

Women, on the other hand, desire to be that beauty. The feminine heart is both gentle and seductive. Truly feminine women do not long for their own adventure; instead they long to be swept up in a man’s adventure. Women desire not to fight, but to be fought for. God made women to be dependent and vulnerable, to be pursued and to be rescued by a masculine hero. As Eldredge explains, “the world kills a woman’s heart when it tells her to be tough, efficient, and independent.”²

One need only look to little children for evidence of this natural, “God-given,” gender order. Little girls’ elaborate princess fantasies reflect their desire to be beautiful, cherished, and—like the damsel in distress—rescued by a manly prince. Meanwhile, as “everyone” knows, “boys will be boys.” They are loud, physical, tough, and reckless. They swing from trees, wrestle in dirt, and thrive on competition. They love guns. They are “wired” for danger, adventure, and aggression—all thanks to their God-given testosterone.³

But—as a number of evangelical writers make clear—this God-given gender order is imperiled. In Bringing up Boys, James Dobson explains how “a small but noisy band of feminists” have taken issue with common-sense notions of gender difference. He says it is up to Christians to combat contemporary “gender confusion.”⁴ Boys are particularly at risk. Parents must combat today’s politically correct culture by teaching their boys to be tough, assertive, and chivalrous. For example, Robert Lewis in Raising a Modern-Day Knight, recommends resurrecting a mythical model of medieval knighthood to provide boys with “a powerful symbol of virile manhood.”⁵

Douglas Wilson, in Future Men, informs his readers that it is “absolutely essential for boys to play with wooden swords and plastic guns,” since they follow Jesus Christ, “the dragon-slayer.”⁶ (Wilson adds that young boys, too, “should obviously be trained in the use of real firearms.”)⁷ Eldredge urges parents to nurture boys’ warrior instincts. “The Lord is Warrior,” he writes, and men (and boys) are made in God’s image, “aggression is part of the masculine design.”⁸ “Is Jesus more like Mother Teresa or William Wallace?” Eldredge asks.⁹ For Eldredge and other evangelical writers, the answer is clear. True masculinity is not for “wimps”…and Jesus was no wimp.

This framework, charted here in broad brush strokes, not only characterizes evangelical books designed for women and men, respectively, but also dominates evangelical literature on relationships and childrearing. However, Christians would do well to consider carefully the wide-ranging ramifications of these constructions of masculinity and femininity.

First, in defining masculinity and femininity in static terms, and then in re-enforcing those understandings, many evangelical writers turn a blind eye to ways in which their own culture has shaped their notions of what seems “natural.” Further, they fail to consider ways in which a consideration of sin must complicate any discussion of gender “norms.” For instance, even if evangelical writers are right in suggesting that little boys (even the sons of liberal pacifists) are inexplicitly drawn to guns—and I’m not convinced that they are—does that mean that God created boys to love guns? If testosterone leads to aggression, is it necessarily God’s will for men to be aggressive or violent?

This kind of reasoning leaves little room to account for the distorting effects of the fall. If boys tend to be more competitive and “dangerous,” and if girls are by “nature” more tentative or passive (or worse, more dependent and seductive), do these tendencies necessarily reveal God’s will for masculinity and femininity? Or do they represent remnants of a fallen order that God calls us to redeem?

Further problems arise with the propensity of some evangelicals to separate Christian virtues (and vices) into masculine and feminine categories. This separation can lead to the distortion of both male and female spirituality, and ultimately, the Christian faith.

Here a historical perspective may prove illuminating. Contemporary evangelical writers often turn to a mythical Victorian era to establish the existence of “traditional,” God-ordained gender relations. It is true that clear gender distinctions characterized (white, middle-class) Victorian America. “True” women were to exhibit gentleness, passivity, and “virtue” in the private realm of their homes.

Men, on the other hand, were to exhibit strength and courage as they labored in the public realm and provided for their families. By the early twentieth century, to be masculine increasingly meant living a life of adventure and exhibiting masculine “toughness.” Teddy Roosevelt best embodied this rough-and-tumble masculinity in the eyes of his contemporaries. It should come as no surprise that the original Rough Rider remains the hero of choice among a number of evangelical writers today.¹⁰

However, given the connections between Victorian and contemporary evangelical gender constructions, the cautionary words of Katharine Bushnell, an evangelical Victorian woman, may have renewed relevance today. Bushnell, a theologian and reformer, came to the nation’s attention in the late nineteenth century by leading exposés of organized prostitution in the lumber camps of northern Michigan and Wisconsin, and then in the British army camps in colonial India. To comprehend how Christian men could behave in such a manner toward women, she turned her attention to studying the scriptures. Her investigation led her to conclude that Victorian (and Christian) constructions of masculinity and femininity were thoroughly unbiblical.¹¹

Bushnell’s work with prostitutes convinced her that the “feminine” passivity held up as a Christian virtue for Victorian women, actually left them vulnerable and ill equipped to protect themselves. True virtue, Bushnell insisted, required strength and courage from women as well as men. “When an expositor and preacher of the Gospel wanders out of his path of duty ‘to preach Christ’ as woman’s one example of conduct, and instead preaches ‘womanliness,’ he sets up an idol of his own creation for women to worship,” she wrote.¹²

With characteristic impudence, Bushnell added that “we imagine such expositors would have been pleased had God sent into the world, an additional female Christ, to set women a female example; but since God did not see fit to do so, women are under obligation to endeavor, as best they are able, to follow the ‘manly’ example of Jesus Christ, and leave the consequences with God.”¹³

In theory Bushnell advocated the same “virtues” for both men and women. But due to centuries of female subordination, she suggested that modern men and women required different correctives in order to follow Christ. Men would need to become less proud and domineering, while women would need to become more confident and assertive.

Many of Bushnell’s contemporaries recommended altering Christianity to suit cultural notions of masculinity and femininity, rather than following Bushnell’s advice to place those notions under biblical scrutiny and reappraisal. These contemporaries were responding to a “crisis” of masculinity in the Christian church. They believed that if emotion, submission, and dependence were inherently feminine characteristics, then Christian theology—which demands submission and dependence upon God—was clearly not for men. To address this dilemma, they fashioned a Men and Religion Forward Movement, and a “muscular Christianity” that would have greater appeal to “real” men.¹⁴

Contemporary evangelicals have followed suit. Writers like Eldredge and Lewis, along with David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to Church, warn their readers of the “feminization” of the modern church.¹⁵ The solution they propose is to embrace a more “masculine” Christianity—one that embraces risk, danger, and militancy. They urge the church to stop catering to “little old ladies” and instead to develop a “warrior culture.”

Certainly Christians are called to be courageous and unflinching in their faith, but by separating “masculine” virtues of courage and strength from the “feminine” virtues of humility and gentleness, the church risks fostering a culture of arrogance and aggression—all, supposedly, in the name of a manly Christ. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a 2004 Pew study revealed that conservative evangelicals tended disproportionately to support an aggressive foreign policy, and, more than any other demographic, to approve of American engagement in pre-emptive war.¹⁶ As many evangelical writers on masculinity make clear, pacifism has no place in a truly “manly” Christianity.

However, as Bushnell suggests, a better solution may be to preach one Christ for men and women, working to nurture both gentleness and strength, courage and grace, in women and men alike.


¹John Eldredge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 8.
²Eldredge, 17.
³Ibid., 9. See also James Dobson, Bringing up Boys (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1997, 2007), 2, 19.
⁴Dobson, 13.
⁵Robert Lewis, Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1997, 2007), 11.
⁶Douglas Wilson, Future Men (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001), 16.
⁷Wilson, 131.
⁸Eldredge, 9. Here Eldredge cites Ex. 15:3. Stu Weber and Steve Farrar, two other popular writers on evangelical manhood, also frequently turn to military metaphors in their quest to define Christian masculinity. See Stu Weber, Spirit Warriors (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Publishers, 2001) and Tender Warrior: God’s Intention for a Man (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Books, 1993), and Steve Farrar, King Me: What Every Son Wants and Needs from his Father (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2005) and Point Man (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Books, 1990).
⁹Eldredge, 24.
¹⁰Eldredge, Farrar, Wilson, and David Murrow all hold up Roosevelt as a model of Christian masculinity.
¹¹Bushnell published her theological reflections in God’s Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Woman’s Place in the Divine Economy (1923; repr. Mossville, Ill.: God’s Word to Women Publishers, n.d.).
¹²Bushnell, God’s Word, paragraph 391.
¹³Ibid., paragraph 411.
¹⁴See Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); Gail Bederman, “The Women Have Had Charge of the Church Work Long Enough: The Men and Religion Forward Movement of 1911-1912 and the Masculinization of Middle-Class Protestantism,” American Quarterly 41 (September 1989): 432-65; and James Gilbert, Men in the Middle: Searching for Masculinity in the 1950s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
¹⁵David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2005).
¹⁶See John C. Green, “Religion and the 2004 Election: A Pre-election Analysis”, pewforum.org, http://pewforum.org/newassets/misc/green-full.pdf <3.19.2009>

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