Wednesday, February 03, 2010

What's Wrong with Muscular Christianity?

The New York Times reports "More Churches Promote Martial Arts to Reach Young Men."

As the article points out, this isn't the first time that America has seen a movement to inject more masculinity into a church (and a Jesus) perceived as feminine. The most famous legacy of this earlier iteration of "muscular Christianity" is the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association).

I suppose I could resent the movement for that. Some of the most hateful hours of my adolescence were spent in my hometown Y, compelled by my dad to work out when I'd rather have been a few blocks down at the library. For years afterward, the smell of that place, the smell of rubber mats and disinfectant, made me queasy and anxious.

For the most part, I've gotten over my hatred of weights and workouts. I attempt a CrossFit workout two to four times a week (and brag endlessly about my accomplishments). I've come to appreciate the joy that the pursuit of fitness can give (sore muscles and creaking joints included). I've come to see the struggle for fitness (the αγων, if you will) as virtuous.

I use that word virtuous intentionally, with an etymological implication. Virtue (the word, not the concept) originates in Latin virtus, "strength, manliness." A man who tests his strength against an opponent, in a footrace or in a fight, does what is fitting for a man.

I hasten to add that none of this should be taken as disparaging women athletes or men who are not athletes. My wife, now 21 weeks pregnant, is still a better athlete than I. It is possible to revel in a quality of manliness without saying that that quality is all there is to manliness; or that men alone own that quality.

In short, it is possible to thank God for being a man without adding "And thank God I'm not a woman."

(Along the same lines, it's possible to say, "I'm proud to be an American" without implying "I'd be ashamed to be one of those poor slobs who's not." But that's another post.)

Which brings us, belatedly, to my problem with muscular Christianity. Its always accompanied by unmanly whining about feminization, ungentlemanly scorn of women and "feminine" men, and unvirtuous assertions of a man's right to lead. For example:

“The man should be the overall leader of the household,” said Ryan Dobson, 39, a pastor and fan of mixed martial arts who is the son of James C. Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, a prominent evangelical group. “We’ve raised a generation of little boys.”

Even if you believe that every man has a God-given right to lead his household, surely it's unmanly to go on about it so. It makes it sound as though the problem is these darn women who refuse to follow. Is there anything less manly than blaming a woman for your failures?

Let men not be taught to shift blame; let them not be given excuses to demand their own way; let them not learn to despise those considered weak.

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