Monsignor Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington wrote an online post on September 1 which stated that “Jesus Was no “Girlie-man.” On Restoring a Truer Vision of the Biblical Jesus from the 20th Century Remake.” In this article, Monsignor Pope claims that images of Jesus in the 1970s
presented Jesus as a rather thin, willow-wisp of a man, a sort of friendly but effeminate hippie, a kind of girlyman, who went about blessing poor people and healing the sick. It is true he did that but usually left out of the portraits was the Jesus who summoned people to obedience and an uncompromising discipleship, the Jesus who powerfully rebuked his foes.
Monsignor Pope yearned for a more manly Jesus, as he explains:
Somehow, even as a teenager, I craved a stronger, manly Jesus. My heroes then were Clint Eastwood and I loved John Wayne movies which my father called to my attention. Now those were men. (I know they were into revenge, but I’d learn about that later).
The “Jesus” I was presented with seemed soft and unimpressive compared to them and, teenager that I was, I was unmoved. Who will follow an uncertain trumpet? The basic message of Jesus 1970 was “be nice” but 1970s Catholicism (which Fr. Robert Barron calls “beige Catholicism”) stripped away the clarion call of repentance and trumpet-like command that we take up our cross, that we lose our life in order to save it.
Imagine my pleasant surprise when I actually began to study the real Jesus, the one in Scriptures. He was nothing like the thin little williow-wisp of a man I had been taught. He was a vigorous leader, a man among men. Someone who was formidable and commanding of respect. Someone I could look up to.
It appears that thin, willowy, nice, effeminate men are not men that one looks up to, not leaders, formidable or commanding of respect, that much I now know, but Monsignor Pope says that such a portrait is not found in the Gospels. Instead, Jesus was handsome – something apparently not found amongst thin, effeminate men – healthy, energetic, clear of thought, strong, upright, and a leader.
Although I agree with the Monsignor that portraits of Jesus which would reduce him to a quintessential (or stereotypical) “nice” guy, who would never speak a cross word, or who is too shy to speak, who is frightened and lacks courage, would be improper, he never actually gives an example of where such a portrait is found from the dreaded 70s, a decade in which I too was a teenager. He does say that the paintings and statues of the day presented this sort of thin, effeminate Jesus, but one can find this kind of portrait or statue throughout Rome in paintings and sculpture from the Renaissance and beyond. I suspect that Monsignor Pope might intend to include plays and movies of the 70s such as Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, but he never names them. These portrayals are flawed in a number of ways, but the fact that Jesus is kind, nice and “willowy” do not seem to be amongst the flaws. Rather, the issue that Monsignor Pope is raising, indirectly, is what comprises “proper” masculinity.
What is, for instance, a “girlyman”? According to the urban dictionary it is a man who “looks or acts like a girl.” Clearly, Monsignor Pope implies, this is not something, a proper “man” should be. He gives examples of 70s men he admired as a teenager: Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. I love Clint, though I am so-so on John Wayne, yet Jesus advised that we "not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also" (Matthew 5:39);” he also said to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). These teachings might be called many things, but they are hardly “Eastwoodian” in temperament. Not, “go ahead and make my day,” but "if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well" (Matthew 5:40). Not, “do you feel lucky, punk, well, do you?,” but "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy" (Matthew 5:7). He also hangs with the ladies, like the Samaritan woman, which scandalized his apostles ("They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman," John 4:27). He is a friend of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42), and when their brother Lazarus died, Jesus wept (John 11:35). When Jesus saw a widow whose son had died, he had compassion for her (Luke 7:12). What a wimp.
Yet, of course, Jesus is not a “wimp,” or a “girly man,” or a “sissy” because these are simply terms of derision and particularly terms meant to deride certain sorts of masculinity. Jesus displayed forms of masculinity that if they were performed by men today might be derided as weak, ineffectual and "girly". He is kind, gentle, sweet, but also bold and powerful. He challenges those with whom he disagrees in the Temple (John 2) and stands up to mockery and derision during his Passion with a quiet, unbending grace (Mark 14). Still, Jesus is also not a “macho man,” because he presents weakness as measure of strength, service to others as a means of true power. He does not curse at his disciples if they mess up a play, turning purple in the face as he loses self-control. He is a true leader of men, who gives up his life on their behalf, a man who does not take power, but submits to it to teach his followers another way (Mark 10). He did not choose the way of Caesar, of the soldier, of the powerful landowner; he chose the way of submission.
What is at stake here is not Jesus as "girly man" or "macho man," but that masculinity in our culture must constantly be “managed.” Is there something wrong inherently with effeminate men? Can “girly men” not be leaders, courageous, tough and powerful? What is wrong with Jesus as a “nice” guy? What is wrong with a thin, willowy Jesus? Are John Wayne and Clint Eastwood better portraits for Jesus than a thin, willow-wisp of a man? Why? Why can't toughness and courage go together with kindness and gentleness?
Jesus lived an itinerant life: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Luke 9:58). Most everyone in the ancient world, royalty and the wealthy excepted, were thin and wispy, tough and wiry. The vast majority of people, Jesus included, had only enough to eat for that day. They lived outdoors most of every day. They walked everywhere, on dirt or cobblestone roads. They were tough, powerful and physically strong. But why is thin, willowy and nice such a negative portrait of Jesus? Perhaps we should allow all of these images of Jesus to challenge our views of acceptable masculinity. Jesus speaks to all men, fat men – thank God! – and skinny men, macho men and effeminate men, weak men and powerful men, leaders and followers, frightened men – "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" (Mark 4:40) – and bold men, men of action and men of contemplation. He challenges our narrow views of what it means to be a man. Jesus as a man offers something to challenge every man. Now, I know this might be pushing it a little far, but I bet he even speaks to metrosexuals. I’m just saying.
John W. Martens
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