I am a man. I present this to you, not as a declaration that I am a “manly” man, but as a straightforward fact. It’s a difficult thing to talk about, not because I feel awkward about my gender, but because that simple declaration comes with a lot of baggage. When I say “I am a man,” a truckload of ideas will pop into your head as to what I mean by that, and your response will vary depending upon your experience.
I want to talk just a bit here about being a man, and I hope you will patiently hear me out. I do not have manliness figured out, nor do I claim to be a good man. But I want to be a good man. I want my son to be a good man. I want the boys in my church to become good men. I want them to be better men than I am. If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to give you a glimpse of my journey as a man, of the things that made me what I am today, and of some of the pitfalls of faux manliness from which the Lord Jesus has delivered me (and still is). It’s long but it’ll be important to this post’s point.
My parents divorced while I was still in the womb. My dad saw me every other weekend. I have one picture of my parents together, and that is a picture of us at my college graduation. I didn’t know my dad very well growing up and my mother didn’t paint a very lovely picture. I don’t blame her for this: divorce is painful.
I was an awkward boy. I didn’t learn masculinity from my father so I looked to my peers. They weren’t a very affirming group to look to and so I had no anchor or model to demonstrate who I should be, no example of manliness to aspire to. I wound up asserting myself as the group’s joker. I projected unseriousness because I couldn’t be taken seriously. I didn’t realize that every man ought to be taken seriously. I wish I’d known that then, and I wish I’d known why that was.
I spent six years in the Army National Guard after high school. I did basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and had Advanced Training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. In college, I semi-joined the ROTC. I took a class that was basically “Army Ranger 101.” My instructor was a major from a Ranger attachment whose job was preparing future officers for Ranger school. After a long semester and a week in the bitterly cold wilderness with him, I decided I didn’t want to be a Ranger anymore. I liked to eat, sleep, and be warm.
I say these things because there are many boys out there who are exactly like I was then. They are trying to be men but they have no idea what that means. They work out, play sports, mimic “manly” movie characters, hang out at bars, chew tobacco, spit, cuss, join the military, and fight — or they might go a different route and get doctorates, watch indie films, visit museums, get a man purse, learn how to judge fine wines, get corporate jobs, and buy themselves a nice sports car. They do all of these things, and they do a million things in-between because even if they can’t feel like a man, they want to project that they are one. Not all of the things I’ve listed are bad — I’d like to have a nice sports car and I’m glad I learned to spit properly — but the problem is when our identity as a man is bound up in the image, or may I say idol, of what we do and what we like.
This brings me to Mark Driscoll and his promotion of the “Ultimate Fighting Championship” (UFC). It’s a sport where men trained in mixed martial arts (MMA) get into a cage and fight until one gives up, is knocked unconscious, or is declared the winner by the judges. I think the sport is terrible, and I don’t believe Christians should participate in a sport about beating another man for money and glory. (To be clear: I am not against learning martial arts — I encouraged my son when he pursued karate — nor am I a pacifist.)
But I don’t want to duke it out with Driscoll about the theology of the UFC today. Instead, I want to talk about Jesus. Driscoll claims that men were made for combat, that men will fight to establish dominance, and that getting in touch with your inner feelings and finger painting are sort of unmanly. This bugs me, not only because I think I might enjoy finger painting, but because the behaviors he lists have nothing to do with manhood. Further, he ties this alpha male assertion to Jesus’ character, which he also does in his latest UFC apologetic. I want to share one of the things that struck me in his article there:
Some Christians will vocally declare that we must reject MMA. Sometimes it’s because they simply do not understand the nature of the sport and misperceive it, and other times it’s because they are pacifists theologically who don’t condone violence in any form. Their picture of Jesus is basically a guy in a dress with fabulous long hair, drinking decaf and in touch with his feelings, who would never hurt anyone.
See there? The reason someone would reject MMA is because they either 1) don’t understand the sport or 2) they’re pacifists. First, Driscoll is mixing categories: I don’t reject MMA, I reject the UFC and the beating of a brother in Christ for money and glory or to establish my physical dominance over him. I could never knee a brother in the face, then roundhouse kick him as hard as I could in the jaw, no matter if the law and FOX Broadcasting say that this is a good way to express my manliness and make money. But this point is minor compared to how Driscoll brings Jesus into the equation. He writes:
Upon his return (he) will come again not in humility but rather in glory.
You see that little section in bold there? It’s a false dichotomy. Jesus’ glory is not in opposition to his humility. Driscoll identifies manhood too closely with chest-thumping, ground and pound, alpha male dominance, no matter what he says elsewhere about humility’s importance. His words betray that he finds beating a man more glorious than washing his feet. Do you want to show a man what it is to be strong? Show him how to stoop to conquer. A man’s glory is found in his compassion and kindness to the weak, not in his ability to throttle them.
Think of it, Christian. It’s easy to understand an all-powerful God laying waste to His foes. You don’t even have to be all-powerful to do it: Zeus did that to the Titans. What is unworldly, unnatural, and man-changing is the idea of an all-powerful God-man allowing weak, pitiful, wicked creatures to spit on him, beat him, and nail him to a tree. His glory is found in his groaning, not only in his roar. I don’t love Jesus because he can pin me to the mat: I love him because he didn’t. I love him because he never will. He is strong and mighty, but it’s his compassion for the weak that captivates.
Driscoll’s idea of Jesus is the opposite of the hippie Jesus he so abhors. His view of Jesus as a chest-thumping alpha male is not helping men be real men. God the Son was always able to kill us, but he had to endure the cross to save us. The vision that dominates my quest for authentic manhood is dominated by Jesus, who is both stronger and better than me, writhing in agony and humility on a cross for my sake. That’s the kind of vision I am going to cast for my son and the men of our church. That vision far exceeds anything you will learn from watching men fight for money and glory.