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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Manliness is next to godliness

Convinced that men are dodging church because it saps their masculinity, some evangelists invoke a tougher Jesus to get the rams back into the fold.

December 07, 2006|Jenny Jarvie and Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writers

Nashville — THE strobe lights pulse and the air vibrates to a killer rock beat. Giant screens show mayhem and gross-out pranks: a car wreck, a sucker punch, a flabby (and naked) rear end, sealed with duct tape.

Brad Stine runs onstage in ripped blue jeans, his shirt untucked, his long hair shaggy. He's a stand-up comic by trade, but he's here today as an evangelist, on a mission to build up a new Christian man -- one profanity at a time. "It's the wuss-ification of America that's getting us!" screeches Stine, 46.

A moment later he adds a fervent: "Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!"

It's an apt anthem for a contrarian movement gaining momentum on the fringes of Christianity. In daybreak fraternity meetings and weekend paintball wars, in wilderness retreats and X-rated chats about lust, thousands of Christian men are reaching for more forceful, more rugged expressions of their faith.

Stine's daylong revival meeting, which he calls "GodMen," is cruder than most. But it's built around the same theory as the other experimental forums: Traditional church worship is emasculating.

Hold hands with strangers? Sing love songs to Jesus? No wonder pews across America hold far more women than men, Stine says. Factor in the pressure to be a "Christian nice guy" -- no cussing, no confrontation, in tune with the wife's emotions -- and it's amazing men keep the faith at all.

"We know men are uncomfortable in church," says the Rev. Kraig Wall, 52, who pastors a small church in Franklin, Tenn. -- and is at GodMen to research ways to reach the husbands of his congregation. His conclusion: "The syrup and the sticky stuff is holding us down."

John Eldredge, a seminal writer for the movement, goes further in "Wild At Heart," his bestselling book. "Christianity, as it currently exists, has done some terrible things to men," he writes. Men "believe that God put them on earth to be a good boy."

Cue up the GodMen house band, which opens the revival with a thrashing challenge to good boys:

*

Forget the yin and the yang

I'll take the boom and the bang....

Don't need in touch with my feminine side!

All I want is my testosterone high.

*

The 200 men in the crowd clap stiffly. Stine races through a frenetic stand-up routine, drawing laughs with his rants against liberals, atheists and the politically correct. Then Christian radio host Paul Coughlin, author of "No More Christian Nice Guy," takes the stage. His backdrop: a series of wanted posters featuring one Jesus of Nazareth.

"Jesus was a very bad Christian," Coughlin declares. After all, he says, the Son of God trashed a temple and even used profanity -- or the New Testament equivalent -- when he called Herod "that fox."

"The idea of Jesus as meek and mild is as fictitious as anything in Dan Brown's 'Da Vinci Code,' " says Coughlin, 40.

So what's with the standard portraits of Jesus: pale face, beatific smile, lapful of lambs?

"He's been domesticated," says Roland Martinson, a professor of ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. "He's portrayed now as gentle, loving, kind, rather than as a full-bodied person who kicked over tables in the temple, spent 40 days in the wilderness wrestling with his identity and with God, hung out with the guys in the street. The rough-hewn edges and courage ... got lopped off."

Martinson considers the experiments with high-testosterone worship "an important attempt to address at least one aspect of the difficulty Christianity is facing with men." He just worries it might go too far. "Too often, it turns into the man being in charge of the woman," he says. "Christianity has been there before, and we learned how wrong it was."

In fact, men taking charge is a big theme of the GodMen revival. At what he hopes will be the first of many such conferences, in a warehouse-turned-nightclub in downtown Nashville, Stine asks the men: "Are you ready to grab your sword and say, 'OK, family, I'm going to lead you?' " He also distributes a list of a real man's rules for his woman. No. 1: "Learn to work the toilet seat. You're a big girl. If it's up, put it down."

Stine's wife, Desiree, says she supports manly leadership; it seems to her the natural and God-ordained order of things. As she puts it: "When the rubber hits the bat, I want to know my husband will protect me."

But some men at the conference run into trouble when they debut their new attitudes at home. Eric Miller, a construction worker, admits his wife is none too pleased when he takes off, alone, on a weekend camping trip a few weeks after the GodMen conference this fall.

"She was a little bit leery of it, as we have an infant," he reports. "She said, 'I need your help around here.' "

Miller, 26, refuses to yield: "I am supposed to be the leader of the family."

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