The National Football League’s draft left some TV viewers disgruntled. Held this past Mother’s Day weekend, draftees were invited to New York. The NFL wanted their mothers to join them and be at their side when pro teams selected them.
What upset some fans is how these tough, brawny young men reacted when they heard their names called. Several slumped over. Others tenderly squeezed moms. Then pent-up emotion erupted into tears. Draftees and moms openly wept.
These players showed tender sides, usually hidden on the field. Some fans felt they demeaned the NFL, as if the league is selling out to sissies.
Rid the NFL of mild-mannered Clark Kents, demanded some draft-watchers. Restore the game with Supermen whose tackles that pulverize opposing players act like heat-seeking missiles.
Most fans like players who strut their physical stuff on the field. Let their on-the-field edginess mimic that of a tough U.S. naval leader. Admiral Ernest King served as U.S. Chief-of-Naval operations during World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, mocked in his early political career for acting the part of a dandy, quipped that Admiral King “was so tough he shaved with a blowtorch.”
What upset some NFL draft viewers was that crying draftees clinging to moms seemed like pansies. Beardless boys. Wimps instead of brawny men who play football.
Like football fans, some Christians worry that men boycott churches where Jesus is portrayed as soft. Believers have started a crusade to buff Jesus’s image. They depict him as a warrior who fights evil. He uses hard-charging tactics, brimming over with forceful testosterone spirituality. Like NFL stars who smash opponents.
At the turn of the 20th century, when football was brutal and left players dead on fields, religious forces wanted to beef up Christianity. During the closing of the Victorian era, some preachers portrayed Jesus as a fair-haired shepherd who leaned on his staff and consoled believers. Far too feminine a trait, claimed critics. Trade this feminine-esque Christ for a shepherd with a sculpted physique who used the crook of his staff to collar wolves and bust their necks.
Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, describes what happened in the early 20th century when Jesus was transformed from a “sweet, almost feminine savior” who consoled the wayward into a tough guy who cracked heads to rid the earth of evil.
“As Teddy Roosevelt decried the ‘over-civilized man,’” writes Prothero, “and Frederic Remington’s popular woodcuts in Harper’s Weekly idealized the soldier in battle and the football player on the gridiron, many Americans craved a manly redeemer. Preachers delivered, in the hope that a rough-hewn Jesus would draw men back to the pews.
“‘Lord save us,’ prayed the powerful evangelist Billy Sunday in 1916, ‘from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, week-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, sissified, three-carat Christianity.’ Advertisements for Jesus-biographies depicted the carpenter-son of God with musculature honed by years of swinging a hammer” (“A Cage-Fighting Christ for Our Time,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 13).
Wanting a macho Jesus to appeal to gun-toting men, the Kentucky Baptist Convention sponsors mid-week church rallies where donated guns are raffled off. Non-church guys find attractive a Jesus who, as a hunting partner, would sling ammo clips across his chest as he clutched a rapid-firing rifle.
A neighbor who lives across the street from the Lone Oak church in Kentucky where gun raffles are held isn’t a church-going type. He remembers, however, how different Jesus was in Roman Catholic confirmation classes. “Real guns?” he asks in disbelief. “I don’t know what to say. You go to church for peace, not to kill or fight.”
Muscular Christianity’s proponents square off against those enamored by a gun-toting Jesus. It’s easy to play biblical ping-pong with scriptural texts, those “proving” pro or con how much of a He-Man Jesus was. Scripture often portrays God as a warrior who punishes evil-doers, as well as a long-suffering father who forgives repentant sinners.
Before his crucifixion, many expected Jesus to shed his “nice-guy” image and morph into a muscular savior who mowed down the Roman war-lords. Jesus disappointed many in the crowd when he entered Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. He fulfilled an ancient Hebraic portrayal of the coming Messiah: “Behold, your king comes unto you, meek and sitting upon a donkey (a sign of peace)” (Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 21:5).
The core of Jesus’s character was meekness. He wasn’t a pushover. He used anger to right wrong. He argued without resorting to cheap shots. He showed courtesy without fawning over people.
He was strongly meek. He didn’t need Christians to raffle spears to make this sharp point.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.