Tag Archives: gender

“American Jesus” – The Movie

I watched last night a documentary by Aram Garriga, who I believe is Catalan. The title (ripped off from a book by Stephen Prothero) was American Jesus. Here’s how Garriga describes the film:

The film focuses on a nation-widespread variety of Christian organizations, controversial and relevant figures of the Evangelical community, Christian Pop Culture & Music specialists, secular analysts, Apocalyptic Preachers and the End Times, Prosperity Pastors, Christian Bikers & Cage-fighters, Mega-churches, Snake Handlers, the Creation Museum, Atheists, Christian Surfers and Cowboys, to name just a few. Their personal testimonies and perspectives will draw a map with all of the ideological and social positions covered and properly represented.

The main goal of the film will be triggering the debate and the questioning, from a non-judgmental perspective, on what’s the current state of American Faith and what are its real social and political implications.

“Non-judgmental”–ha ha. That’s a good one.

american-jesus-posterThis film was both intriguing and disappointing. Intriguing because of its whirlwind tour of proliferating American evangelical identities, especially in relation to forms of popular culture: Christian rodeo, Christian bikers, Christian cage-fighters, Christian stand-up, Christian alternative music, Christian outsider art. Although the film didn’t overtly call attention to this, I was particularly intrigued by how many of these forms of evangelical practice were trying to make evangelicalism compatible with some conventional image of masculinity. That is, these are often contemporary iterations of “muscular Christianity.” Judging from this film, American evangelicals are struggling to get men into the pews but take for granted the commitment of women–although why evangelicalism appeals to them, this film has little to offer by way of explanation.

Which is one of the things that’s disappointing about the film. Additional disappointments–thinking especially about this film as a potential resource for teaching–are as follows:

1. The film lands so briefly on the different groups it showcases that there’s not much material to work with for the ethnographic purpose of understanding these adherents’ worldviews from the inside out. That’s because…

2. The film is basically an American evangelical freakshow. The film isn’t really trying to help viewers understand why these evangelicals organize their lives the way they do. The film shows you just enough to give you grounds to think, “Oh my God, these people are crazy!” before hustling you along to the next freak in the line-up. Leading to…

3. The film is ultimately a rant against the New Christian Right. Frank Schaeffer is featured at length–here’s a interview subject on whom the film finally settles down to linger–explaining how evangelicals have become the “fifth column of insanity” in American politics. All those crazy people we saw earlier in the film vote! They’re driving the policies of the Republican Party! They’re gleefully promoting apocalypse in the Middle East! I’m a European filmmaker who had no idea! I must warn the world!

But “from a non-judgmental perspective,” of course.

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Joan of Ox(ford)

The student paper at my campus ran this editorial cartoon in yesterday’s issue. (Click the image for a larger version.) I’m intrigued by how dense the cartoon is with Catholic imagery. Are most students here able to “read” that imagery? Note especially where the Virgin Mary is saying, “I didn’t exist. You do…” To “get” that comment would require a pretty substantial level of iconographic literacy.

(I think that’s supposed to be the Virgin Mary, anyway. She’s riding a dragon reminiscent of the Beast from Revelation–the one the Whore rides–which is confusing–unless a rather obscure comment is being made about the juxtaposition of the Virgin and the Whore as images of femininity–or unless there’s an iconographic reference I’m missing out on because the imagery is that dense.)

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By Chris Curme

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Protestants, Sports, and Manhood

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


Protestants, Sports, and Manhood
By Andrew Roussos

Every year as summer rolls in children get out of school and have months to play and enjoy their adolescence. Some ride their bikes, others go swimming but many young boys take to the baseball diamond for a season of competition. Parents cheer on the bleachers after every hit ball and stolen base as they pass the time chatting with neighbors. It is a truly communal activity which has deep roots in almost every town in America. But little do these children know they are engaging in activities used to promote and idea of “Christian manliness”. Around the turn of the century Protestants promoted a competitive sporting and physical education culture to create this idea of Christian manliness. Through this Protestants helped shape many aspects of sports which are today considered norms.

Muscular Christianity

The idea of a manly Christian is as old as the religion itself although not always at the center of it. We can look at the bible and find references to this idea of strength and health. In first Corinthians chapter 6 verses 19-20 we see a clear example of this “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies”. This is a direct calling to Christians to maintain their body in honor of their God.

With the birth of Protestantism by Marin Luther in 1517, Christians’ views on labor and physical work was brought more into focus. This was mainly due to Calvinists. This group of Protestants emphasized the importance of hard work. Czech theologian Johann Amos Comenius suggested dividing the day into three periods “eight hours for sleep, eight hours for work, and the remaining eight hours for eating, cleaning, and recreating the body” (Goldbach 291).Though Calvinist did not approve of sports, more liberal protestants saw physical activity as a way that men can build up their bodies so that they may work harder during the next day. Even Martin Luther was a propionate of exercise “for the reason of public health and national defense” (Putney 51).

This prayer from the 1906 story The Apostate by Jack London is a great example of how Protestants viewed work. “Now I wake me up to work. I pray the lord I may not shirk. If I should die before the night, I pray the Lord my works’ all right.”

Although roots of Christian manliness trace back thousands of years the now popular term Muscular Christianity is relatively new. It first came about in a “1857 English review Charles Kingsley’s novel Two years ago” (11). From then it was used in many different writings. The term was also used to describe a genre of writing “adventure novels replete with high principles and manly Christian heroes. Muscular Christianity did not have just one definition. Many theologians and authors had slightly different takes on what this term should represent. Kingsley for example viewed it as “a cleaver expression spoken in jest” (15) whereas English author and writer Thomas Hughes view a muscular Christian as “someone who used their bodies for the advancement of all righteous causes” (15).

Rise of Sports in the Church

It wasn’t until a few decades before of the century that Americans paid any attention to organized sports. The first collegiate sports team was formed around this time. Yale, which at the time was a strict protestant college started a rowing team. Soon followed by other (protestant) Ivy League schools Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth & Penn. This gave rise to the “first intercollegiate competition between Yale and Harvard on Lake Winnipesaukee” (46) in 1852. This was a new ear for American culture. Organized sports were starting to gain attention. Many historians understand the “post-bellum years a golden age for athletic competition” (44).

The saying “body as temple”, taken from the Bible verse from first Corinthians began to take hold in “prep school addresses, college sermons and YMCA periodicals” (56). The Protestant church liked this idea but wanted also include “moral leadership in athletics” (57). Thus the church began to associate with organized sports to promote these values.

Churches began to build their own facilities such as gymnasiums, baths & swimming pools. Decades earlier this would have not even come into question. It shows the modernization of the more liberal end of the Protestant church. They used these facilities to not only help increase their membership but also to keep youths out of trouble by giving them an alternate solution to their recreational time.

The Young Men’s Christian Association

You might now this organization as the YMCA. A classic American Christian group with athletic facilities in almost every city in America. The YMCA we know of today is vastly different than its original makeup. It was founded in England in 1844 and came to America seven years later. The YMCA was trying to provide a “home away from home” (65) for young boys. Usually including a library, rooms for scripture reading and discussion, and furniture for relaxation.

It wasn’t until a major expansion by the YMCA did the youth organization begin to resemble the athletic clubs we know today. Starting in 1878 wealth businessmen donated millions of dollars in an effort to “Christianize the laboring man” (66). With this expansion came a shift in ideals, putting more emphasis on the building of character rather in young men rather than keeping them from sin. This was done by having a strenuous and “hard” environment.

Outdoor camping was one way they strove to achieve this, trying to create a manly man who can live in the outdoors. Another was exercise. This is a practice used in every high school football team in America. Training young men & pushing them to their limits in the hop of building tough men with character. By the turn of the century four hundred and fifty-five YMCAs had fully operational gyms in use.

Basketball, a sport that is outrageously popular throughout all ages of men in America was conceived and spread thanks to the YMCA. Reverend James Naismith developed the game of basketball in 1891 at the request of Luther Gulick the superintendent of the physical education department of the International YMCA Training School. Soon after the game spread quickly thought the YMCAs across the nation. Giving birth to a sport which has been played by young men for over 100 years.

Having the YMCA shift its focus to physical activity and education, changed how thousands of young men viewed sports and competition. This Christian organization directly affected the popularity of organized sports though the values they instilled in youths. Luther Gulick stressed the relationship between religion and athletics. He stated in a bible study in 1915 that “the risen Jesus is a member of every gymnasium class, of every athletic team in which there are Christians, whether we are conscious of it or not” (71).

 From Boys to Men

Although the YMCA has strived to toughen young boys into men with character, during the progressive era many middle aged Protestants feared that their male children would not be able to compete in a world where females were gaining professional ground and with the large influx of immigration. They were worried their boys would become “social parasites” rather than “social assets” (100). Citizens blamed schools and churches, accusing them of failing in their responsibilities to properly educated young men.

The most influential organization in improving the character of these boys were mainline Protestant churches. They help create “boys’ boarding schools, out-door camping, and the Boys’ Brigade” (116). It was also the churches close ties with the Boy Scouts of America which helped keep young boys involved in church. Many churches sponsored Boy Scout troops, which turned out to be a great alternative to Sunday school which had a “ultra-feminine atmosphere” according to Fred Smith leader of the Men and Religion Forward movement.

The ability for the church to help raise these boys also proved its worth to the community. They are saving the children from poor morals and ideals. Rather than the previous method of amusing boys in order to gain attendance the church switched to service. Investing in young men so that they might become strong Christian heroes in the future. The essences of muscular Christianity.

The Legacy of the Church

Sports and athletic culture are deeply imbedded into American life. From boyhood to manhood, males are constantly playing and competing in organized sports. So much of these emphasis is the legacy of the Protestant church. From the development of the mainly Christian and the roots it has in scripture to the development and spreading of new sports. Basketball a multibillion dollar industry has stood the test of time thanks to the Protestant YMCA. As first Corinthians says “Body as temple” American society reflects this today more than ever.

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Who ordains women?

This weekend, the “Ordain Women” movement within Mormonism received a surprising amount of national media attention. I have a hunch that the media’s interest was driven partly by the LDS Church’s efforts to prevent the story from gaining media attention, i.e., by barring journalists from Temple Square so they couldn’t photograph women being turned away when they tried to gain admission to the male-only priesthood session. If you tell journalists they’re no longer allowed to go somewhere they’re used to going, you’re pretty much guaranteeing they’ll become interested in what you don’t want them to document.

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The “Ordain Women” news stories made me think of this slide, which I created a couple years ago for a PowerPoint presentation on the history of women’s ordination in the United States. The slide lists the 10 largest Christian denominations in the U.S., according to the 2012 National Council of Churches yearbook. The green checks indicate denominations that ordain women, and the red X’s indicate denominations that don’t, as best I could determine. The Baptist denominations were tricky to categorize because of their congregationalist style of governance, but I assigned those denominations an X if I found that the national body had gone on record as disapproving women in pastoral authority.

Note that of the 10 largest denominations, only half ordain women. And of the 5 largest, only 1 ordains women (at least as of 2012–I think there’s been some reshuffling in the ranking since then). As I put it when speaking to a group of Mormon women last year: Women’s ordination is common, but I wouldn’t say it’s the norm.

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Who’s afraid of Carry Nation?

Carrie_NationOn Monday, we were discussing the temperance and Prohibition movements in my introduction to American religious history. One of our readings was Carry Nation’s account of how God inspired her to go to Kiowa and smash saloons. When I popped onto the Internet to show students this photo of Nation, a male student in the front row expressed surprise that our reading had described men as cowering in the corner when she started doing her work. Why were they so afraid? She looks like such a little old woman, he said.

“She was throwing bricks!” I replied. “If an elderly woman walked through our classroom doorway and started hurling bricks, I’m willing to bet your reaction would not be to rush her, no matter how diminutive she was.”

He didn’t look convinced, so I turned toward the blackboard as if I were about to write something down–then I whipped around and flung the chalk across the room. It smashed into pieces against the wall (safely above students’ heads, I hasten to add). After the startled cries had transitioned into nervous laughter, I said, “That was a piece of chalk, people. Imagine what you’d be feeling right now if I’d thrown a brick.”

Little old women with bricks and hatchets need to get some respect, dammit.

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