Monsignor Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington wrote an online post on September 1 which stated that “Jesus Was no “Girlie-man.” On Restoring a Truer Vision of the Biblical Jesus from the 20th Century Remake.” In this article, Monsignor Pope claims that images of Jesus in the 1970s

presented Jesus as a rather thin, willow-wisp of a man, a sort of friendly but effeminate hippie, a kind of girlyman,  who went about blessing poor people and healing the sick. It is true he did that but usually left out of the portraits was the Jesus who summoned people to obedience and an uncompromising discipleship, the Jesus who powerfully rebuked his foes.

 Monsignor Pope yearned for a more manly Jesus, as he explains:

Somehow, even as a teenager, I craved a stronger, manly Jesus. My heroes then were Clint Eastwood and I loved John Wayne movies which my father called to my attention. Now those were men. (I know they were into revenge, but I’d learn about that later).

The “Jesus” I was presented with seemed soft and unimpressive compared to them and, teenager that I was, I was unmoved. Who will follow an uncertain trumpet? The basic message of Jesus 1970 was “be nice” but 1970s Catholicism (which Fr. Robert Barron calls “beige Catholicism”) stripped away the clarion call of repentance and trumpet-like command that we take up our cross, that we lose our life in order to save it.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I actually began to study the real Jesus, the one in Scriptures. He was nothing like the thin little williow-wisp of a man I had been taught. He was a vigorous leader, a man among men. Someone who was formidable and commanding of respect. Someone I could look up to.

It appears that thin, willowy, nice, effeminate men are not men that one looks up to, not leaders, formidable or commanding of respect, that much I now know, but Monsignor Pope says that such a portrait is not found in the Gospels. Instead, Jesus was handsome – something apparently not found amongst thin, effeminate men – healthy, energetic, clear of thought, strong, upright, and a leader.

Although I agree with the Monsignor that portraits of Jesus which would reduce him to a quintessential (or stereotypical) “nice” guy, who would never speak a cross word, or who is too shy to speak, who is frightened and lacks courage, would be improper, he never actually gives an example of where such a portrait is found from the dreaded 70s, a decade in which I too was a teenager. He does say that the paintings and statues of the day presented this sort of thin, effeminate Jesus, but one can find this kind of portrait or statue throughout Rome in paintings and sculpture from the Renaissance and beyond. I suspect that Monsignor Pope might intend to include plays and movies of the 70s such as Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, but he never names them. These portrayals are flawed in a number of ways, but the fact that Jesus is kind, nice and “willowy” do not seem to be amongst the flaws. Rather, the issue that Monsignor Pope is raising, indirectly, is what comprises “proper” masculinity.

What is, for instance, a “girlyman”? According to the urban dictionary it is a man who “looks or acts like a girl.” Clearly, Monsignor Pope implies, this is not something, a proper “man” should be. He gives examples of 70s men he admired as a teenager: Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. I love Clint, though I am so-so on John Wayne, yet Jesus advised that we "not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also" (Matthew 5:39);” he also said to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). These teachings might be called many things, but they are hardly “Eastwoodian” in temperament. Not, “go ahead and make my day,” but "if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well" (Matthew 5:40). Not, “do you feel lucky, punk, well, do you?,” but "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy" (Matthew 5:7). He also hangs with the ladies, like the Samaritan woman, which scandalized his apostles ("They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman," John 4:27). He is a friend of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42), and when their brother Lazarus died, Jesus wept (John 11:35).  When Jesus saw a widow whose son had died, he had compassion for her (Luke 7:12). What a wimp.

Yet, of course, Jesus is not a “wimp,” or a “girly man,” or a “sissy” because these are simply terms of derision and particularly terms meant to deride certain sorts of masculinity. Jesus displayed forms of masculinity that if they were performed by men today might be derided as weak, ineffectual and "girly". He is kind, gentle, sweet, but also bold and powerful. He challenges those with whom he disagrees in the Temple (John 2) and stands up to mockery and derision during his Passion with a quiet, unbending grace (Mark 14). Still, Jesus is also not a “macho man,” because he presents weakness as measure of strength, service to others as a means of true power. He does not curse at his disciples if they mess up a play, turning purple in the face as he loses self-control. He is a true leader of men, who gives up his life on their behalf, a man who does not take power, but submits to it to teach his followers another way (Mark 10). He did not choose the way of Caesar, of the soldier, of the powerful landowner; he chose the way of submission.

What is at stake here is not Jesus as "girly man" or "macho man," but that masculinity in our culture must constantly be “managed.” Is there something wrong inherently with effeminate men? Can “girly men” not be leaders, courageous, tough and powerful?  What is wrong with Jesus as a “nice” guy? What is wrong with a thin, willowy Jesus? Are John Wayne and Clint Eastwood better portraits for Jesus than a thin, willow-wisp of a man? Why? Why can't toughness and courage go together with kindness and gentleness?

Jesus lived an itinerant life: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Luke 9:58). Most everyone in the ancient world, royalty and the wealthy excepted, were thin and wispy, tough and wiry. The vast majority of people, Jesus included, had only enough to eat for that day. They lived outdoors most of every day. They walked everywhere, on dirt or cobblestone roads. They were tough, powerful and physically strong. But why is thin, willowy and nice such a negative portrait of Jesus? Perhaps we should allow all of these images of Jesus to challenge our views of acceptable masculinity. Jesus speaks to all men, fat men – thank God! – and skinny men, macho men and effeminate men, weak men and powerful men, leaders and followers, frightened men – "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" (Mark 4:40) – and bold men, men of action and men of contemplation. He challenges our narrow views of what it means to be a man. Jesus as a man offers something to challenge every man. Now, I know this might be pushing it a little far, but I bet he even speaks to metrosexuals. I’m just saying.

 John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

Comments

Livia Fiordelisi | 9/14/2011 - 7:48pm
Clint Eastwood? John Wayne? And maybe the Blessed Mother resembled Kim Kardashian?
Michael Maiale | 9/15/2011 - 6:26pm
I think this is all sort of beside Msgr. Pope's point.  His pop culture references about masculinity aside, it's about accepting Jesus on the terms the Gospels give us, instead of watering Him down to be inoffensive.

Perhaps, though, it would be good for an authentic image of masculinity if we embraced the Christ of the Gospels as an ideal for manliness.  Jesus didn't need to worry about looking like a pansy.  He didn't have to put on any machismo act.

He was brave, bold, audacious, and yet selfless.  He had a quick wit and a sharp tongue.  He wasn't afraid to challenge the powerful, and He'd even throw some tables around when necessary.  He confronted injustice with fury, conviction and action.  At the same time, Jesus embraced the children around Him, comforted the sick, and offered hope to the despairing.

After defiantly accepting brutal torture to save mankind (the kind of selfless sacrifice that makes a John Wayne character look mundane), when He was on the verge of death, He looked past His own intense suffering to make sure His mother was cared for.

To quote Jack Ingram, "Oh, that's a man." 
Sheila Harrison | 9/10/2011 - 11:01am
 Jesus seems less concerned with feminine or
masculine traits, instead places value on  personhood
Dale Rodrigue | 9/8/2011 - 6:31pm
Msgr Pope is just another snarky priest who doesn't like anything about the 1960's and 1970's and possibly anything coming from Vatican II. 

If he thinks that Jesus of the 1970's was not man enough then what about the Jesus of the Divine Mercy from the 1930's?  Not very masculine. 
I am not a devotee to the Divine Mercy but consider what Christ apparently said to St. Faustina about his not so masculine image:

''Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush, lies the greatness of this image, but in My grace.''

So maybe Msgr would rather have a fire and brimstone Bill Donohue type of Christ but it's not what Christ wanted for His image.  Maybe Msgr should reconsider his statements. 
Stanley Kopacz | 9/8/2011 - 3:56am
What about Jimmy Stewart as opposed to his friend John Wayne?  Supposedly not so much a macho figure but a real  but quiet war hero, having flown 20 missions as a bomber pilot in WW II. And his role as Sam Bailey, broken and suicidal and crying, what did Wayne ever do to compare with that? As the angel Clarence said, "I like George Bailey".
ed gleason | 9/7/2011 - 11:52pm
The masculine men you mention are Anglos 6"4" 220 pound guys, Eastwood and Wayne. Maybe these are stereotypes of masculinity.  
NORMA NUNAG | 9/7/2011 - 4:25pm
Thank you for this post.  That's why it's good to read the Bible ourselves to verify the cultural images presented to us.  But it is also important to check our own images!

"Metrosexuals"?   What do you mean?   It sounded so funny I laughed so hard!
Sarah Hennessey | 9/7/2011 - 9:50am
Awesome reflection Dr. Martens!  We inherently fall into problems when trying to retrofit Jesus into our own culture and especially our own usually warped views of masculinity.
Your description of Jesus' character clearly blurs and goes beyond our narrow categories by being gentle and bold, kind and strong, weepy and angry.

I loved your insights about the wiry itenerant, food for a day, lifestyle of Jesus.  Perhaps the crux here is your exception to this diet/body type, "the wealthy and royalty."  In our global world, entire continents, including ours, live the lifestyle of the wealthy, complete with the problems of obesity and gluttony that come with it.  It is from this place of privilige that most radically shapes our image of what it means to be a man.
Eamon Croghan | 9/13/2011 - 4:40pm
Thanks Bob. Your post reminds me of Viktor E Frankl who says in Man's Search for Meaning that those people who appeared physically strong invariably deteriorated quicker under the concentration camp conditions that did those who appeared less physically strong but were much stronger mentally.  The former relied on physical strength, the latter on inner strength.
Robert Klahn | 9/13/2011 - 12:33pm
Thin is a problem? Is short a problem?

I am 63 yrs old, and 5'8'' tall. That was exactly average height when I was 20. Which, conveniently, was the age when I enlisted in the Air Force.

Did you ever meet a Green Beret? I have known several, and the tallest I ever met was about an inch taller than I am. Most were my height or shorter. When I was in the Air Force I was once sent out to work on a cargo plane that was transporting a platoon of Army Airborne to Vietnam. They were small men. Not horrendously so, but shorter than I am, and thin. Parachutes do better with thin men. Yet they were among the most feared fighters the US ever had.

It is so easy to get confused about what is really necessary to be strong. In the real world, it's not the guy who knocks down walls, but the ones who build them. The strong are those who do what needs to be done today, and tomorrow, and keeps on doing what needs to be done.

One of my favorite quotes is from  Mary Anne Radmacher:

Sometimes courage is the quiet voice
at the end of the day, saying,
''I will try again tomorrow.''

My great achievement in life is, I kept trying.
C Walter Mattingly | 9/9/2011 - 7:29am
I would say Jesus as characterized in the NT physically had to be a virile, strong male with good endurance, not in any way weak. With all the walking and physical and mental demands, he had to be fit. Carpenters tend to be agile, wiry, and strong. You don't enter a crowded marketplace and start throwing over heavy tables and attacking a number of other men singlehandedly if you are wimpy and effeminate. Finally, and tragically, you don't survive a terrible scourging, which in itself killed a fair number of its victims, then have thorns pounded into yourself, carry a heavy wooden cross through a city and up a hill, then being nailed to a cross and hoisted for several hours unless you have a very strong constitution. 
Jesus likely did not resemble Eastwood (a blend of Jimmy Stewart, as Stanley suggests, with Eastwood's typical strong sense of conviction, would help), but while Jesus certainly loves Sheldon and Leonard on the Big Bang tv show, physically and emotionally, he probably resembled them less than Clint (whose Grand Torino image is closer to Jesus in the Temple than some here might suspect, a connection likely intended by the director/author/actor).
Stanley Kopacz | 9/8/2011 - 4:00am
"Sam Bailey"?  I have to stop posting in the middle of the night after being woken by rain and thunder.
Susan Mulheron | 9/7/2011 - 6:36pm
Great post!