John Eldredge didn't start the discussion on what it means to be a "real man," but his 2001 book Wild at Heart certainly ramped up the conversation in Christian circles. In the decade-plus since, pastors, scholars, pundits, and regular shmoes like me have all weighed in on what manhood really means in the context of Christian faith.
Eldredge wrote that for a boy to "become truly masculine," he ultimately needs "a battle to fight" and "a place for the warrior in him to come alive." Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll, fond of cage fighting and occasional cussing, believes in an "Ultimate Fighting Jesus," lamenting that the church has produced "nice, soft, tender, chickified church boys." Paul Coughlin, author of No More Christian Nice Guy, writes that "a meek and mild Jesus is a bore. He doesn't inspire us." Even Christianity Today senior managing editor Mark Galli joined the fray with the 2006 book Jesus Mean and Wild.
However such notions go down in the annals of scholarship on Christian masculinity, this is certain: Men of faith—studly, manly men—were everywhere on the big screen in 2011, ready to kick some butt and spill some blood. They were Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Norris all at once.
The trend even trickled down to Sherwood Pictures—the church production company behind Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and, now on DVD, Courageous—whose films are typically more "meek and mild" than "mean and wild." Leading men—a football coach, a fireman, cops—have always carried Sherwood's movies. But the coach in Giants was too whiny, and Fireproof's Kirk Cameron was too much of a pretty boy. Maybe we could relate to their issues, but not to a guy whose name is oft preceded by the phrase "former teen idol." Not until Courageous could most guys say, "Now there's a dude I could look up to."
And yet the cops in Courageous were also what I would call "attainable." Guys don't watch Rambo or Commando and think, Yeah, I could do that! But we can watch Courageous and think that way; these cops are tough, but no tougher than we could be in similar situations. They also looked like us—middle aged, a little paunchy, in need of a fashion makeover. Even their faith looked like ours—guys trying to be promise keepers but screwing up along the way. Courageous captured that vibe right from the start with an exciting cops-and-robbers chase scene, followed minutes later by scenes showing them as regular guys with real struggles: forgetting a daughter's recital, getting into an argument with the wife, and so on.
Courageous had plenty of company in 2011 as several films depicted Christian men who were not only rugged and brave but also struggling sinners just like me. We didn't get Mark Ruffalo as the hardnosed police investigator in Zodiac or the suave leading man in Just Like Heaven. Instead, we got the conflicted priest who trips over his own selfish ways in Sympathy for Delicious. We didn't get Gerard Butler as the godlike warrior in 300 or the debonair stud in P.S. I Love You, but rather a hot-tempered mercenary in Machine Gun Preacher. We didn't get Anthony Hopkins as the dignified butler in Remains of the Day, but rather an aging priest grappling with demons and doubts in The Rite.
The trend applied to Hollywood movies as well as those produced independently by Christians—everything from big budget blockbusters like Cowboys & Aliens ($163 million) to church-produced and on-the-cheap projects like Courageous ($2 million) and The Grace Card ($200,000). No matter the cost, the faith-based protagonists were similar: manly, but broken.