Monday, December 05, 2022

Reconstructing My Faith: John Wayne, Straight Lines, and the Benefits of Being a Nerd

John Wayne: Hollywood Icon

My favorite classic Hollywood actors are Jimmy Stewart and Gene Kelly… which, in the context of what I’m about to write, may offer a glimpse of insight into my own personal feelings. (Seriously – if you haven’t seen It’s a Wonderful Life, Singin’ in the Rain, Rear Window, or The Pirate, just stop reading this post and go have some fun. Then come back… I have a lot to say today.)

While I enjoyed John Wayne in a couple of his films, I’m not really a fan of most westerns.  His True Grit is very good, as is The Searchers – though you need to be ready for director John Ford subverting Wayne’s usual stock Western good guy character to deal with racism. Hint: John Wayne is NOT the hero in The Searchers.

Which brings me (finally) to Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. You may have heard of it – either through the effusive praise of exvangelicals and folks who are deconstructing their evangelical upbringing, or through the blistering critiques of those who are defensive of the various ministries, leaders, and theological preferences (i.e. complementarianism) she calls out in the book. 

I originally read Jesus & John Wayne in December of 2020… and I actually finished the book one day before the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. So, when I wrote my original review of the book on Goodreads, this is how I saw it:
My response to this well-researched trip through evangelical history is colored by my own personal experience of that history... and how I managed to avoid the worst excesses of "muscular Christianity" despite being around or involved with a variety of the organizations that the author profiles: Focus on the Family, Wild at Heart, Promise Keepers, Mars Hill Church (Seattle), and the Southern Baptist Convention.

I think that the author sometimes makes connections that may or may not be warranted... but she also does a tremendous job of surveying the problematic teachings and ministries that have influenced evangelical theology and political involvement.

I'm also aware that I would have read this book through very different lenses a decade ago... pre-Trump, pre-#ChurchToo... I'm going to spend a lot of time thinking about the issues she raises and what that means for how I live out what I believe.

I'd recommend this to any evangelical who wants to think carefully (and prayerfully) about how our tolerance for questionable teaching (and leaders) has created an evangelical culture ripe for fear-mongering, unbiblical rhetoric, and authoritarian demagogues in the pulpit and in politics.
Nearly two years later, I read Jesus & John Wayne again, wanting to write clearly about my own process of rejecting toxic versions of masculinity, whether they were taught from behind a pulpit or by the confused first world online culture. What I discovered was a little more complicated than that.

The Myth of a Straight Line

Later in 2021, I read and reviewed Heather Cox Richardson’s How The South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continued Fight for the Soul of America… and while I found a number of her ideas convicting and/or intriguing, I noted that she, like so many others, had fallen victim to “the myth of a straight line”. Here’s what I wrote:
It is profoundly tempting when attempting to make your point - whether it is drawing from historical precedent, religious text, or scientific data - to assert that since A happened, of course B occurred... and that inexorably led to C & D…

…I understand that Heather Cox Richardson wasn't writing a book about the SBC and its role in supporting the political structures and decisions she is criticizing. On her way to proving her point, however, she drew a straight line through a much thornier and complicated bit of history.

And that makes it more difficult for me to take in the rest of the book - leaving me to wonder where else she elided pesky historical facts or sandpapered down sharp edges from individuals or movements she supports. 
On a second read, that same tendency is even more pronounced in Jesus & John Wayne. I understand that Du Mez is arguing for a particular thesis:
By the time Trump arrived proclaiming himself their savior, conservative white evangelicals had already traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates “the least of these” for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses. Rather than turning the other cheek, they’d resolved to defend their faith and their nation, secure in the knowledge that the ends justify the means… In reality, evangelicals did not cast their voted despite their beliefs, but because of them.
Unfortunately, the author’s dedication to that thesis leads to quoting primarily from those who agree with her premise and cherry-picking speakers and authors for their most egregious and toxic statements. Her use of “conservative white evangelicals” as a catch-all term (which sweeps decidedly Never-Trump me up in the same net) is problematic as well:
For conservative white evangelicals, the “good news” of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity.
I’ll take just a moment to point that literally none of the things in the previous paragraph describe my own personal theological or political beliefs… and it is that dissonance that made the second reading of this book more difficult and frustrating.

Does that mean that the issues she raises about an overly militaristic approach to faith and a culturally loaded viewpoint about male & female roles are incorrect? Absolutely not. But it does mean that her expansive picture of the evangelical view of John Wayne/American Cowboy masculinity is not a Walter Cronkite-esque “and that’s the way it is”. 

Again, I don’t dispute that there have been a plethora of stupid and even potentially heretical things done/said by pastors and Christian leaders in an attempt to stampede evangelical believers into voting, giving, and behaving in certain ways. Fetishizing the cleansing of the Temple and the picture of the triumphant Christ in Revelation 19 while downplaying the compassion and patience of Jesus leads to skewed and unbiblical forms of engagement with God and with others.

At the same time, forming an image of your deity based on the prevailing cultural narrative is not restricted to American evangelicals in the 20th and 21st centuries. A big chunk of my personal “reconstruction” quest is to clean off the cultural barnacles that so easily accumulate on the ship of my Biblical faith in Christ.

Board Games Saved My Soul

Okay… maybe that headline is a little overblown – but I’ve come to believe that my non-athletic, theater-loving, board game-playing lifestyle protected me from most of the worst excesses of the “cowboys & warriors” culture in evangelical men’s ministry while enabling me to glean some incredibly helpful spiritual truths from those same folks. 

It's a weird paradox – the kid who was fascinated by war games and the history of the Civil War & World War II wasn’t particularly interested in shooting guns or tromping around in the woods. Due to extensive reading about battles and soldiering, I had a clear-eyed view of how horrific war could be – which fueled my admiration for veterans and those who gave their lives without mythologizing going to war as some kind of grand adventure.

But it wasn’t geek culture alone that helped me reject the overblown portrayals of Christian manliness. I was taught the truth of Scripture by wise female Sunday School teachers in SBC churches – including into my college years. At Baylor University, my key advisor at the Baptist Student Union was our assistant director, a single woman with a deeply compassionate heart and a willingness to ask the tough questions that helped me grow towards God. 

I also experienced deeply moving teaching and ministry through those ministries with a tendency towards “muscular Christianity” that Du Mez highlights in her book. I found parts John Eldredge’s Wild At Heart book & study to be warmed-over Iron John “back to nature” nonsense… but other parts – dealing with father wounds and living by vows rather than faith in God – were profoundly important in my walk with God. The staff at Focus on the Family’s ministry to pastors were incredibly helpful when I went through my first forced termination as a youth pastor, as were the staff at the Baptist Sunday School Board (now Lifeway). The PromiseKeepers Pastors Conference was a watershed moment for me in dealing with racial and denominational reconciliation. 

Yes, I understand the damage that various elements of those ministries and organizations have done – and, in some cases, continue to do. The books they write, the conferences they speak at, the interviews they give… all play a part in normalizing an unbiblical picture of Christian character, especially for men. Du Mez says it well in the book:
“The products Christians consume shape the faith they inhabit. Today, what it means to be a “conservative evangelical” is as much about culture as it is about theology.”
Final Thoughts

My responsibility as a follower of Jesus is to 
  • continue the difficult process of separating Biblical truth from cultural baggage, even the baggage I’m personally comfortable with
  • lean into the whole character of Christ
  • ignore the gendering of character traits as “male” and “female”, particularly when they attempt to sideline clearly Biblical values such as mercy, compassion, and self-control
  • speak truth
So, do I still think you should read Jesus & John Wayne? The simple answer is “yes” – even if it makes you mad, even if you find yourself arguing with it, even if it frustrates you with some “straight line” argumentation. Kristin Kobes Du Mez throws a blistering spotlight on the evangelical movement that highlights our tendency to echo parts of the culture we are in when it plays to our presuppositions… and our willingness to justify ungodly behavior in the name of preserving power and influence. We all need that wake up call.

Note: This post is already getting crazy long… so I’ll get into the role of women in ministry and in the life of the church in a different post – that’s a much bigger subject that deserves space to breath. The same is true of my reactions to Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church (Seattle).

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