The popular evangelical vision of Biblical manhood is not as Biblical as it might appear. Before I stepped away from pastoring in American evangelical spaces, it wasn’t uncommon to hear manhood attached to cultural expressions (hunting, guns, emotional suppression) and yet it was always cast as “Biblical”. But the vision sure is lucrative. From studies to sermons and conferences, manhood sells.
Evangelicalism is prone to harness existing cultural narratives not challenge them. Manhood is no exception. I recently tweeted that we should reject any appeal to ‘Biblical Manhood’ which makes more out of King David and his exploits than Jesus. Too often, proponents of “Biblical manhood” read against the grain of Scripture, and force Jesus through a selective reading of David, not the other way around. Of course, this is rarely announced or acknowledged. After all, it’s out of step with Christian orthodoxy to center David over Jesus. So why does this sort of vision for Biblical manhood exist?
Born from a pragmatic drive to reach men for Christ, a secular and heroic vision called ‘Biblical manhood’ continues to animate & inspire Christian ministry to American men. And American culture is predisposed towards the worship of great men defined by Western culture. Look no further than VP Mike Pence’s speech at last year’s GOP convention where he equated American patriots with Christian sainthood using Hebrews 11. It is a vision marked by a certain heroic strain, one that forces Jesus to play by its rules. But who wrote the rules?
Enter Thomas Carlyle, a 19th century Scottish philosopher. Carlyle was the proponent of the Great Man Theory. He wrote, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” He believed that greatness was inherent, and that historical crises revealed the great men present in every age. It’s easy to connect Carlyle’s great men theory of the 19th century to pop-evangelical approaches to masculinity, and its reading of Scripture today.
It is not just faith in Jesus, but the faith of Jesus that guides and animates Christian living. When Jesus says “turn the other cheek” or “go a two miles” with your Roman oppressor, we must avoid domesticating these claims to fit our cultural conceptions of masculinity. This also means we see in Jesus a confrontation with and refutation of David and Moses by way of fulfillment.
The popular evangelical vision of Biblical manhood can be profoundly secular as it operates downstream of Carlyle’s theory and Nietzsche, who relied heavily on Carlyle in his development of his “Super-Man.” We are not to comb the Scriptures for morally exemplary great men and women, but to see in them, and share with them, a hope in the God-Man.