John Piper and the Rise of Biblical Masculinity
We've been hearing a lot about masculine Christianity lately.
By now we're used to hearing Mark Driscoll campaign for more masculine church leaders and expressions of Christianity; late last year, Reformed pastor Douglas Wilson invited Driscoll to his church to speak at a Grace Agenda conference—a gathering that tactfully segregated women by offering a separate pre-conference just for them. In turn, Wilson spoke at John Piper's Desiring God Pastor's Conference, which this year had an explicitly masculine theme: "God, Manhood & Ministry: Building Men for the Glory of God." No stranger to strong statements in the blogo-twittersphere, Piper again drew attention by declaring that "God has given Christianity a masculine feel."
The insistence that Christianity ought to be muscular is often traced to American evangelists of the early 20th century, such as Billy Sunday and D. L. Moody, who emphasized sports and physical strength to counter the perception that Christians were soft and docile, in other words, feminine: a concept attributed to the 19th-century idealization of women as keepers of home and hearth and nurturer of the family's spiritual well-being. But even then, the perception of "spirituality" as "feminine" was itself a relatively new idea. For millennia, Western ideology tended to understand women as being grounded in body and matter, while men dealt in the realm of the mind and spirit.
If nothing else, it's clear that masculinity and femininity are not fixed and eternal sets of attributes, but are by and large culturally defined, and always changing. For example, blue was once more closely associated with "feminine" while pink was associated with "masculine." In parts of Europe, it's still not unusual for men to greet one another with kisses; in India, you might see two male friends walking arm in arm. And we have many examples of renaissance poetry—essentially love poetry—written by and for non-homosexual males who were close friends. By looking to other times and other places, we can see that masculinity is a way of behaving culturally that looks different in different times and places.
In their 1990 book, What's the Difference?: Manhood and Womanhood Defined according to the Bible, John Piper and Elisabeth Elliot acknowledge that the cultural forms of masculinity and femininity can change, but insist that Christians ought to respect, not challenge, these cultural codes, including things like, "Who speaks for the couple at the restaurant?" and "Who drives the car? … Mature masculinity will not try to communicate that such things don't matter." I doubt such displays of masculinity—driving the car, speaking to restaurant staff—held much more cultural sway in 1990 than they do today, so it's worth asking: Why do Piper, Wilson, Driscoll, and other neo-Reformed leaders feel the need repeatedly to defend masculinity, often stridently?
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