by Rhys Laverty
For just over ten years, I have been a Christian.
Specifically, I identify as an evangelical Christian. Now, I’ll level with you: I probably don’t meet all of your stereotypes. But I probably meet a fair few.
Here’s one: I like talking to other people about Jesus.
Now, I don’t know what your experiences of that have been – some are likely negative. I can’t speak for angry street preachers, but I talk to people about Christ because I think he is (shock horror) the Son of God and that following him is what we were made to do.
So, my cards are on the table.
In my family, I am one of only two Christians. Over the past ten years, I have attempted to talk to my family about Jesus. I don’t shove it down people’s throats, but it’s a high priority of mine.
I’m from a working class background, and the men in my family – dad, brother, uncles, grandfather – are traditional working class blokes. They’ve all worked in different kinds of manual labour. They’re well known in the pubs they drink in. I love them to bits. They epitomise average British men.
And, over the past decade, I’ve noticed this about them and most men: they find religion and spirituality very difficult to talk about.
The Top Four
Now there are lots of things that men, traditionally, find it difficult to talk about. Emotions and their side being last on Match of the Day to name but two.
But, conversely, there are things men find it very easy to talk about. In fact, I think that adult male conversation often breaks down into the same four things:
All generalisations are inaccurate to some degree, but I’ve found this to be pretty fair. And so I’ve asked myself: why are these the things men regularly talk about?
I think it’s because, in each of these areas, a man is able to bring something to the table. He has something to say, to contribute.
A conversation about work: “That job still causing you grief then?”
A conversation about relationships: “How’s the old trouble-and-strife?”
A conversation about sport: “So what happened to your lot on Saturday then?”
A conversation about socialising: “Guess who I saw down the pub the other day!”
In these things, a man can carry gravitas. If you’re doubtful, consider how emasculated men feel when they lack in these areas: unemployment, lack of sexual partners, disinterest in sport, introversion.
Moving through the familiar motions of “the Top Four” allows men to be subtly, repeatedly affirmed in their self-perceived masculinity.
A Secular Age
The UK has become increasingly secular over the past 50 years (and don’t hear that as me lamenting the loss of “Christendom” – it’s just a fact, I’m not complaining about it). As a result, your average Brit has very little framework for religious conversation.
Combine this with the male need to bring something to the conversational table and something very interesting happens.
Religion and spirituality become emasculating.
They create the unfamiliar situation of a man having no weight to throw around. He’s out of the comfort zone of the Top Four. How can he feel like a man in that conversation when he has nothing to offer?
Now, again, I’m not lamenting the loss of a “Christian culture”. Actually, the Bible gives me cause not to be surprised that men are difficult to talk to when it comes to religion.
In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, Jesus repeatedly associates with women – who, in that culture, were second class citizens, inferior to men, especially to a rabbi like Jesus. They were broadly excluded from things that granted agency – land, inheritance, influence, testimony in court. These were the reserves of men.
Men in that culture were, at every level, the favoured sex, constantly able to reinforce their sense of masculinity through the agency afforded by things like land, family, sex and status.
So when Jesus arrives saying “your life doesn’t consist of status, influence or possessions“, the women are all willing to listen – because they don’t have any of that stuff anyway! Every woman he meets responds positively to him and they’re immediately more open to a spiritual conversation. Those who reject Jesus, however, are all men – often with their identities reinforced by the masculine perks of wealth and status. Jesus is an emasculating presence.
And no less so today.
Things are much better for women thankfully, but our world still offers men constant chances to affirm their masculinity through success in work, women, sport and socialising.
But a conversation about spiritual matters requires men to admit that, perhaps, their prowess in those things is not actually that significant. Like all threats to traditional masculinity, the suggestion that your worth is measured by other standards goes totally against the grain of how men assess and imagine themselves.
Now, I repeat: this is not a complaint article. I’m not whining about people not wanting to listen to me when I bang on about God.
But it seems fair to acknowledge that our narrow cultural avenues for “masculinity” are increasingly alienating men from being able to discuss religion and spirituality. It doesn’t compute. It’s against our rules.
However, historically and globally, a person without an openness toward the spiritual and religious (even if they have no beliefs themselves) is an anomaly. There is no reason why we should imagine that men are by nature spiritually and religiously averse – it’s a cultural phenomenon of the modern west.
Our current crisis of masculinity is largely down to unhealthy cultural categories imposed on men. We are sold a certain (false) idea of what it means to be a man. I hope to see this change. I hope to see men defying these categories and, in that, finding that there is nothing “unmanly” about religion and spirituality. Indeed, a willingness to step outside of one’s comfort zones should be something that always characterises a mature man.
by Rhys Laverty (@IfADoubleDecker)