Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

New Frontiers: Wild at Heart and Post-Promise Keeper Evangelical Manhood

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

New Frontiers: Wild at Heart and Post-Promise Keeper Evangelical Manhood

Article excerpt

In the 1990s, many Americans watched in amazement--and some in distress--as Christian men crowded by the thousands into sporting arenas across the country to attend Promise Keeper rallies. Started in 1990 by ex-college football coach Bill McCartney, the Promise Keeper (PK) movement peaked with its "Stand in the Gap" rally in October 1997--a revivalistic gathering of hundreds of thousands of men on the National Mall in Washington, DC. At that time, the PKs were among the largest parachurch organizations in the world. Even evangelical men who never went to a PK rally likely attended churches where some shard of the PK message cut its way into sermons, small groups, Sunday school classes, and church libraries. Few parachurch movements have permeated evangelical culture so widely and so deeply.

For good reasons, scholars regard the PK movement as a major plot point in the story of evangelical masculinity in America--and American manhood generally. The physical and emotive enormity of PK rallies made them attractive as case studies. Neither mast nor rope existed that could restrain scholars and journalists from answering the weepy, baritone siren songs that issued from America's gridiron cathedrals in the 1990s. So many Christian men. In one place. Something very significant--and titillating--was transpiring. The PK movement exposed and cultivated a massive demographic of self-consciously male Christians--mostly evangelical men who conceptualized their faith deliberately around their gender. Masculinity became an object of intentional scrutiny, the y-axis of spiritual discipline for husbands, fathers, and sons. Although it experienced organizational decline after the Washington rally, the PK movement hewed a discursive space in evangelical media that would outlast the movement itself. In the years following the PK heyday, Christian publishers and booksellers perpetually and self-consciously had to offer "books for men." (1)

In the early twenty-first century, a fresh pack of evangelical men writing and speaking about Christian masculinity emerged to stand in the gap the PKs had left behind. This new generation owed a great deal to the PK movement, but typically they cast themselves as correctors of, if not foils to, their cultural father. This spate of men had no discernible hierarchy or centre, but they shared a concern over the feminization of American culture generally and American Christianity specifically. With varying degrees of charity, many of these men pointed an accusatory finger at McCartney's movement for perpetuating a soft-minded, moralizing notion of Christian masculinity. As if Freud himself had scripted the story, the sons of the PK movement rose to power through patricide.

This was a distinctly "Post-Promise Keeper" moment in American evangelical masculinity--a moment in which the prevailing popular discourse surrounding Christian manhood departed from its PK derivative in intention, method, and effect. In this essay, I will explore this shift by examining the most popular text of this new epoch: John Eldredge's Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man's Soul. Published in 2001 by a former employee of James Dobson s Focus on the Family, Wild at Heart remained on bestseller lists for several years--third on the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA 2011) overall (fiction and non-fiction) bestseller list until 2004, still well inside the top fifty ten years after its debut. Like evangelical publishing stars Rick Warren, Gary Chapman, and Stormie O Martian, Eldredge turned his book into a mini-franchise, publishing a number of small group study guides and sequels to the original autograph. (2) As a result, John Eldredge became a household name in American evangelical culture.

Wild at Heart manifested and helped to institute two significant turns away from PK discourse: the descriptive turn--Eldredge's rejection of the PKs prescriptive, performative constructions of manhood in favour of a descriptive, essentialist masculinity; and the evidentiary turn--specifically Eldredge's employment of Hollywood and boyhood as authoritative prooftexts to an essential masculinity. …

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