Hyper-Muscular Christianity

In Seattle, self-described “charismatic Calvinist” Mark Driscoll preaches that “Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand, and the willingness to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship…I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.” Justin Fatica, founder of the Catholic ministry group Hard as Nails, found a different way of demonstrating the rugged power of Christ when he appeared in an HBO documentary shouting “Jesus loves you!” as a colleague beat him with a folding chair.

Although Fatica is Catholic and Driscoll is Protestant, there are remarkable similarities between the two: Both were raised Catholic but had a lackadaisical approach to their faith until a conversion experience in their late teens (at age seventeen for Fatica, and age nineteen for Driscoll). Both men also emphasize their tough origins. Driscoll believes Jesus had calluses and does not hesitate to compare Joseph’s vocation as a carpenter with his own father’s career as a drywaller. Fatica comes from affluence but emphasizes that prior to his conversion he lived a shady, worldly life in New Jersey where he “hung out with some characters.” These narratives generate the capital of manliness necessary for their sermons.

The preaching styles of Driscoll and Fatica – which are both controversial and confrontational–appear to be motivated by a concern that Jesus has been emasculated by a bloodless church that is more concerned with culture than salvation. They are not alone in this view. Fundamentalist cartoonist Jack Chick produces a comic tract entitled “The Sissy,” in which a hirsute trucker named Duke mocks a fellow trucker’s Christianity because “Jesus was a sissy.” Have we actually reduced Jesus to, “a limp-wristed hippy in a dress with a lot of product in His hair,” as Driscoll claims? Or are there other cultural forces behind these types of extreme preaching?

As Molly Worthen notes in a New York Times piece on Driscoll, men from Billy Sunday to the Promise Keepers have railed against the feminization of the church. “Muscular Christianity,” which emphasized an ideal of vigorous masculinity, first appeared in Victorian England. The term was coined to describe the writings of Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes, who felt that sports and athleticism would produce Christians who were more fit for civic duty. Hughes and Kingsley also shared a concern over the changes of industrialism and worried whether traditional morality would be able to adapt.

Driscoll and Fatica appear to embody a sort of muscular Christianity on steroids. Rather than sports, Driscoll and Fatica tie Christianity to modern spectacles of violence. Fatica admits that his signature use of folding chairs is borrowed from World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Driscoll has organized an event called “Fighting with God” in which he discusses spiritual warfare with Christian athletes from the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

If Kingsley and Hughes were concerned about industrialism, Driscoll and Fatica seem to blame consumerism for feminizing Jesus. Driscoll writes in his book Vintage Jesus, “Jesus did not have Elton John or the Spice Girls on his iPod, The View on his TiVo, or a lemon-yellow Volkswagen Beetle in his garage.” Tim Hanley, a speaker for Hard as Nails Ministries, has commented, “We’ve had enough of the facades and the fake people…We live in a world that’s so fabricated.” According to Worthen, the most popular movie at Driscoll’s church is Fight Club, a tale of manly emancipation from consumer culture.

However, the perception that manliness must be restored to the church seems suspiciously linked the rise of women as well as gays and lesbians in the ministry. Another similarity between Driscoll and Fatica is that both have been cited making misogynistic comments. Fatica is known for pointing out overweight women in his audience and yelling, “You’re fat!” He claims this is done to demonstrate the cruelty of consigning people to their categories. While Fatica encourages women to join the Hard as Nails ministry, Driscoll reminds his congregation that women must submit to their husbands and are forbidden from taking preaching roles. On his blog, Driscoll implied that Ted Haggard’s wife contributed to his downfall: “A wife who lets herself go is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about is not responsible for her husband’s sin, but she may not be helping him either.” These comments beg the question: Is this hyper-muscular Christianity really a radical, transgressive approach to ministry? Or is it actually the death-throes of an outmoded patriarchy?

“Who Would Jesus Smack Down? Mark Driscoll – A Pastor with a Macho Conception of Christ,” Molly Worthen, The New York Times, 6 January 2009.
“Controversial Preacher is ‘Hard as Nails,'” John Donovan and Julia Hoppock, ABC News, 20 June 2008.
Mark Driscoll, Vintage Jesus (Good News Publishers, 2008).

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.