Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Macho Christianity
Simon Jenkins on macho Christianity
It was Bible study evening with the Plymouth Brethren, and all of us were sitting in a big circle on hard chairs, a King James Bible open on every lap. I was there with a few friends from our Baptist youth group (this was about 400 years ago) and the reason for this outbreak of ecumenism was that our local Brethren Assembly was blessed with a lot of girls. We started to read from one of St Paul’s longer epistles, and the idea was that each person read a verse in turn, going round the circle.
I glanced up. There were about 10 people between me and the man currently reading, so I relaxed. Suddenly, silence fell on the room. I raised my eyes to find everyone looking at me impatiently. I checked the circle again and it slowly dawned that all the people between me and the last reader were female. Therefore (in the logic of the Plymouth Brethren) it was my turn. Only men and boys could read from the Word of God, because of things St Paul said. Did I mention that all the women were wearing headscarves?
That was the 1970s, the era of flairs, beige and misogyny. Ripple-dissolve to the present day, when the sexual landscape all around us has been completely reshaped. Despite that, not only have the Neanderthals of church life failed to die out, but they’re going on a fresh rampage in several branches of Christianity. In these churches, it’s almost as if someone’s been spiking the chalice with a hefty dose of viagra.
The most heterosexual and testosterone-fuelled church in the world is the Orthodox Church. People moan about the sexism of the Catholic Church in not allowing the ordination of women priests, but Eastern Orthodoxy is in a league of its own. It has a whole peninsular in Greece (Mount Athos), home to 20 famous monasteries, where women have been forbidden from setting foot for centuries. And not just women. Also forbidden are cows, sows, chickens, ewes and nanny goats, any of which, presumably, might be a temptation to the poor monks.
Added to that, the Orthodox engage in conspicuous displays of machismo. I once happened to be in Crete at Easter, and wondered on the flight over how different it would be with the Greek Orthodox. I got my first inkling on Good Friday, when the locals dragged a fearsome effigy of Judas onto the beach, strung him up on a gibbet, and roasted him in a bonfire, to huge cheers and fireworks. A couple of days later, the faithful celebrated the resurrection by firing guns wildly in the air and toasting the risen Lord in glasses of fiery raki.
Meanwhile, many miles north of Crete, the Russian, Romanian and Bulgarian Orthodox (among others) have their own special way of celebrating epiphany in the early days of January. They carve a cross-shaped hole in the thick ice of the nearest lake, a priest tosses a crucifix into the freezing waters, and then 20 or 30 muscly young men in speedos dive in after it. Whoever emerges alive, holding up the cross, is guaranteed to be free of evil spirits for a year – which is apparently such a tangible and desirable prize, it makes the possibility of freezing your nuts off a trivial matter.
While the epicentre of ridiculously macho Christianity is located in Orthodoxy, it abounds in all sorts of other places. In Bear Grylls becoming the poster boy for Alpha. In Bibles which sport camouflage covers, such as the NIV Outdoorsman Bible. In the Memento Mori Skull Rosary (yours for $39.99), where the beads are separated by silver skulls. It’s not so much muscular Christianity, as Christ on steroids.
One organisation which promotes Christian ministry for men is so blokeish it makes Jamie Oliver sound like an old Etonian. ‘Come and ‘ave a banter, a bacon roll, a bit of worship, muckin’ in togever, that’s what it’s all abart.’ This kind of typecasting shows that conservative churches prefer their men the traditional way: strong and a bit thick.
At a time of gender-neutral loos, gay marriage and clothes with no male or female labels, certain Christians of whatever church tradition seem more and more determined to clone manly men and submissive women in their congregations. In fact, they’ve turned up the volume so high on the issue, they sound like a vibrating boom-bass car, with blacked-out windows, screeching through a quiet neighbourhood.
They might as well be living in the 1970s. Maybe if enough of us did it, we could pray them back there.
Simon Jenkins is Editor of shipoffools.com. His book, Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse, was published in March by SPCK at £9.99. Reform readers can get the book for a discounted rate (£8.99) via this URC Shop link: http://bit.ly/2oXP4IM
This article was published in the October 2017 edition of Reform