Book Review: Howdy Pilgrim, a Review of Jesus and John Wayne

Okay, I couldn’t resist putting a John Wayneism in the title for my review of “Jesus and John Wayne”.

Please forgive me.

The book is 309 pages of text plus a lot more pages of notes, paperback, written by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. She has done good historical work, documented her sources, and covered the time period in a chronological way that I appreciate. There are sixteen chapters, and each chapter is thematic around a basic idea related to the rise of evangelicalism in the United States since the turn of the twentieth century.

Let me begin by addressing the salacious title. This book is not about Jesus. Actually, there is very little about Jesus in it. It is also not about John Wayne. There are a few scatterings about John Wayne and his politics and how it influenced his later movies, especially films like The Green Berets, but if you buy this book thinking there will be a lot of stories about The Duke in it and how he relates to Jesus, then you’ll be disappointed.

This book is about one thing, and one thing only — it seeks to describe and explain the emergence of toxic masculinity, or the patriarchy, within evangelicalism. The subtext of the book is that we are to believe the way evangelicals embraced former president Donald Trump in 2016 is a direct result of that toxic masculinity which had been carefully nurtured by key leaders for at least seventy years. If you want a book that is all about Donald Trump and his relationship with Christ-followers, this book is not that book, as he only occupies pages on the periphery, the beginning and the end. This book is more about the mindset of evangelicals rather than the politics of President Trump.

Du Mez believes evangelicals embraced Trump precisely because he was a testosterone-filled alpha male who put women and his enemies in their place, and that is what they had come to expect from strong leaders. As such, I think she comes up short of proving her argument en toto. She may be right, but I think she overplays the masculinity politics just a tad and underplays the genuine concern many Christians have about issues like abortion, the Supreme Court, and immigration. I don’t write this to defend those positions, but I don’t think it is just the issue of Trump filling the idealized image Christians have of a strong man. I admire her attempt though, because I have often struggled to understand exactly how a New Yorker who built an empire of casinos, had a penchant for pornography, was guilty of womanizing, said his favorite pastor was Norman Vincent Peale (a man evangelicals absolutely couldn’t stand), and cursed so much in public became the darling of Southern Christians. I am less than satisfied with her explanation, but I admire the attempt.

What I like about this book is the thoroughness. It is so thorough at times you feel like it is repetitive. Du Mez can sometimes belabor the point, but that is just good historical footwork. In doing this work she weaves a coherent narrative of evangelical thought from Billy Graham’s famous Los Angeles crusade to Bill Gothard to Phyllis Schlafly to Tim and Beverly LaHaye to Oliver North to John Piper to Mark Driscoll, covering all points in-between. She glosses over a lot of years and personalities, but the way she paints the picture it was one successive leader after another reenforcing gender stereotypes and tropes into the hearts and mental pictures of Christians.

If I were to say there is one particular target for Du Mez, it is not Donald Trump, but James Dobson. She spares no energy in attaching him and his organization, Focus On The Family, to every bad thought or bad idea or bad person. She really, really, really, really does not like him. Yet, it is hard to find anyone she is flattered with. The book is a virtual compendium on the agenda, style, and problems of key Christian leaders — and most of them are in my library — the ones mentioned above, plus folks like Wayne Grudem, Stu Weber, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and Tim Keller.

Her critique is needed. There is much in the way of abuse, politics, agenda, and just plain-old-fashioned power grabs that have marred and scarred churches in America. This is an issue of repentance and of change. Do not read her book if you don’t want to argue with her a little bit, and do not read her book if you only read things that conform to your preconceived notions.

I agree with many of her assertions. For example, I think she is right when she highlights how complementarianism has been used by abusive personalities for their own gratification. As an egalitarian, I can completely join in on that perspective. However, not all complementarians are abusive, and the vast majority of them I know are good, honest, wonderful Christ-followers who are seeking to follow the Bible as they understand it. To paint them all with that broad brush of abuse or manipulation is going too far. Egalitarians can be just as guilty of abuse, as the sad situation with Hybels exemplifies.

But my criticism on this front is a minor issue because the church deserves this kind of evaluation from a skilled set of eyes willing to go through the actual historical record. She has the receipts, so to speak, on something I’ve said often but without the data, just more of a gut feeling — and that is this — when we look at what the last seventy years of church life has produced, biblically illiterate people who call themselves Christian, sex scandal after sex scandal, spiritually weak churches, church leaders obsessed with marketshare and media, and then put the cherry on top of a loss of credibility with just about everyone then I ask the honest question, why would we continue to follow any pattern in church life that has been handed down to us? If we are to have healthy Jesus-focused congregations in the future these congregations must break the paradigms that have produced so much poison. Taking away the power of celebrity pastors to set the agenda is one place to start. Another is to reject the idea that growing a big church is somehow the goal. Another is to reject power-players and bullies within local churches. And another, which this current volume aligns with, is the empowering of women to fully exercise ministry gifts. I mean, come on, men have made a pretty big mess of things. Maybe it will take godly women leaders to clean it up.

I recommend this book if for no other reason than we all need to be exposed to our own history.