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.


Pastoral Ministries And COVID-19

One of the aspects of pastoral ministries I take very seriously is the hospital visit. I know a lot of pastors do not do those any more, but I still think it is important. For most of my twenty five years of ministry, this has two phases. One phase is someone in a room, and in that room and it is just as you would expect, like a regular hospital visit. The biggest challenges in these situation are 1) getting them to turn the television down 2) finding a place to sit 3) not interfering with the medical folks coming and going. It is always important to remember, pastorally, you are on their turf when in the hospital and you must accommodate whatever they have going on.

The second phase of this, is what I think is the most important, and that is pre-op. I have never had any problem walking to the front desk, saying I am so-and so’s pastor, then calling down to get clearance from the patient, and then they walk me down — usually to the last stop before the patient goes in. It is in this setting that I read a little scripture, talk about eternal things, anoint them with oil, and then pray with them for a successful surgery, wisdom for the doctor, a speedy recovery, and no long term problems. The greatest challenges to this was 1) arriving at just the right time, 2) not staying too long, and 3) finding your way back out when finished because those places are a maze.

COVID-19 changed all of that.

I remember the visit I was trying to make the very day they changed the policies at one of our local hospitals and was denied access. I did leave behind a little “prayer bear” from one of our ministries that I take to patients in the hospital.

One of our little prayer bears

For over a year now, hospital visits have been prohibited across the board. In this in between time I have prayed on the phone with a lot of people and visited them in their yard the night before, all masked up and often wearing gloves. Sometimes people prefer to come by my study at church — it feels a little more official, I think for some folks.

Now, though, some hospitals are opening up, our local hospital is, for the Phase One kind of visit. I’ve been able to see people in their rooms the last three or four weeks and that is very nice. It feels almost normal.

The Phrase Two type, though, still seems out-of-reach. I was reminded of this yesterday when we called a hospital to find out if I would be able to do that and was told “You can pray in the lobby before the patient checks in.”

What I am wondering is, as a spiritual guide, if the hospitals will ever open this back up to us as a possibility. I feel like there is a good chance they will not, which is unfortunate. It deprives people of faith of a holistic approach to their well-being.

What I am working through is how this change will combine and steamroll with the rapidly increasing trend toward sending people home the same day of their procedure. More and more surgeries are ‘day surgeries’ or perhaps ‘overnight’ surgeries. The window of opportunity for seeing someone in the hospital has been shrinking steadily. When I first started pastoring in the mid-90s, if a woman had a hysterectomy she was often in the hospital fo a week. Now she is home that afternoon. Back surgeries were usually long stays, but now they schedule them at 6AM and have the patients out the for by four.

I am not complaining about this from a medical perspective — although we all know these rushed times are the result of insurance and not healthcare — but instead my concern is how do you do meaningful hospital ministry in these accelerated programs when COVID-19 protocols are in play? The answer will probably involve some kind of hybrid approach that involves the night before the surgery prayer in home, Sunday at church prayer, video-calling people in the hospital, and the incredibly rare opportunities to hold someones hadn’t, touch their forehead, and pray with them.

What I refuse to do is surrender the playing field, so to speak, and walk away from the sick, the hurting, and the afflicted. As things change, we who give pastoral care will have to work hard to stick our nosey little face in and ask the questions like, “If your surgery doesn’t work out the way we are hopeful it will, are you ready for eternity? Have you told the people you love all the things you need to tell them? What is your biggest fear going into this? How is your relationship with Jesus?” What is more, those we minister too will have to help us, because we’re navigating waters that are fresh and new to us and are contrary to both our training and our temperament.


Baptism: Three Possible Futures

Not that baptism only has three futures, but I see three possibilities.

I’ve been thinking of this important Christian practice a lot lately as I’ve recently finished up a six weeks small group class that has covered the biblical material, origins, history, practice, and theology of baptism. In the last session I talked about contemporary issues, and among those was a speculation of where baptism may be heading in modern American culture. What I see is not all that great.

Future One–People Are Getting Baptize All The Time

Many Christian groups, particular those with an Arminian disposition, may have people who feel they’ve lost their way and come back to faith in Christ and want to celebrate this with getting baptized again. Other traditions, like my own Baptist heritage, has begun to view baptism as an almost expected double or triple experience. It is not uncommon for people to have been baptized as a child, then again as a teenager or in their 20s, and then finally when they join a new church that has a different practice. None of these things in itself might lead us to this new future of everyone getting baptized all the time, but combine it with the idea of using baptism to cleanse a conscience after a traumatic event or a startling life change, and it is not hard to see the idea of baptism as a symbol of renewal of Christian faith that might be repeated multiple times a year as Holy Communion is celebrated.

Future Two–No One Is Getting Baptized

Another variation is one in which the act of baptism has been ‘metaphored’ away into something that represents a decision to follow Jesus as Lord but the symbolic representation of the water has been removed as an artifact of a pre-enlightened world. This move would certainly be welcome to the large mega-church movement which are functionally non-denominational in their affinity appeal to ideology and style rather than theology or heritage. It is easier to move people without the trouble of water.

Before you object to this as an impossibility, consider this has already happened in most places with the concept of anointing with oil for prayer and healing. Whereas our foremothers and forefathers would have likely seen and participated in such moments of symbolic action, today’s Christ followers rarely if ever experience it.

Future Three–Everyone Is Getting Baptized

No, not because everyone is become a follower of Jesus, but because baptism has been secularized and no longer is rooted in faith in Jesus. In this concept, the world co-opts the baptismal font as a statement of cleansing or renewal in a psychological or emotional sense but no need to bother with faith or theology. The best example of this having already occurred is the cross. People adorn their bodies with a cross who have no faith in Jesus at all. Indeed, the government designates the cross as a secular symbol (click here for Greenbeans outstanding ‘The Cross Is Not A Secular Symbol’) that means death or cemetery. Can you see a future in which people are baptized after a bad day, a breakup with their boyfriend, or quit a job, or smoking? Sadly I can see backyard pool parties in which people promise to be loyal to themselves and to serve the better good as citizens of the world an some other bilge about the heart wants what the heart wants, then a good friend baptizes them and everyone sings a John Lennon song.

Each of these futures is horrific to me.

In Memoriam: My Mother

My mother believed funerals were barbaric. She said so to me on many occasions. There was something about it she thought morbid — people talking about the dead in ways they never talked about the dead when they were alive. She also hated the pretense and ceremony of a funeral.

I disagreed with her on the importance of funerals, for I think they are important, but she hated them.

Saturday we had hers.

Joyce Stinnett Greening
Age Unknown

It was actually more of a memorial. My sister and I had talked with her about her wishes, and she waffled a bit for a long time about where to put her ashes — part of her wanted to be put in Arkansas where she was born and spent a lot of time, and then part of her wanted to be put on the old farm in Hughes Springs, Texas.

In the end, she chose the farm.

We gathered on the concrete slab that was once the back porch. In this picture below I am standing approximately where “Laura” was — Laura was the giant freezer we kept the ice cream in. Yes, the freezers had names. Mom named them. The other was “Granny”. Granny held the meat and frozen vegetables from the garden.

The house is gone too. We had to demolish it when it collapsed under the weight of a storm and the trees. The only thing left are the sheds (yes, plural for my father loved to build sheds) and the wooden porch he constructed.

We held a brief service with some traditional elements, and several people spoke and told stories. There were about thirty people there. All of them were either family, neighbors, or those who had been neighbors. I read the 23rd Psalm and Jill played the songs from Spotify mom wanted played at her funeral — “Heavenly Sunlight” and “Spirit in the Sky.” So, the Gaithers AND Norman Greenbaum played mom’s funeral — which should be enough to keep it from being barbaric.

At the conclusion we put her ashes in a Folgers coffee can along with her last pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and Oreo cookies then planted it in the garden she tended. The flowers still grow, wild and bold, scratching out life from the cruel world and blooming just like my mother did.

Mom taught me a lot of things in life — how to treat most any wound or ailment with mayonnaise, coal oil, butter, tobacco juice (spit), horse linament, and monkey blood. If you do not know what monkey blood is, you have not lived a full life. She also was fond of melting down Vicks Vapor Rub in a spoon and making me drink it. You can imagine my shock when as an adult treating my own children I finally read the label where it says “DO NOT CONSUME”. Aside form hillbilly first aid, she also taught me lessons about life, family, and priorities, and one of those lessons was hospitality. Over the years many different people lived with us or spent a long amount of time with us. Mom never turned people away.

On a fun note, she also taught me to cook. Mom was an outstanding cook and she did so with inferior tools. Some of my favorite dishes I learned from her:

  • Banana Pudding — her recipe takes many eggs and real “Nilla” Wafers. She was a devoted consumer of name brand products.
  • Chicken and Dressing — every year I called her the Monday before Thanksgiving just to double-check my big dish.
  • Goulash — I thought my mom invented that until I learned it was actually Hungarian.
  • SOS — “Stuff on a shingle” she learned this from her mother, and she made it with hamburger meat but I prefer sausage. Its basically just gravy and toast. But the gravy has to be brown gravy. It has to be.
  • Beef Stew — She made great beef stew, and I learned from her that you eat the meat last after you’ve eaten everything else.

A few fun facts about my mother:

  1. Her favorite movie was Aliens. The second one, with the space marines. She liked the first one, but the second was her jam. She liked movies with strong female leads.
  2. Although she was a great cook, she didn’t really eat much of what she cooked. She preferred snacks. The snacks would come in phases — she’d obsess about Skittles then one day suddenly move on to Fig Newtons. Her last obsession was Oreos.
  3. True to her Arkansas roots, she did not appreciate having to wear shoes, and her favorite clothing was a moo moo.
  4. Paranoia was her default reaction to just about anything. “They” were watching, and “them” was the persistent problem.
  5. She hoarded light bulbs, certain the day would come when no human being would be able to buy one. Also fun fact, she referred to them all in one word without the L sound in bulb, ‘litebubs’.
  6. Mom was an avid reader, often reading a book several times over. Our home was very small and she knew I was a reader too, so she hid the books I shouldn’t be reading under the bathroom sink. I was about nine when I found Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’. I read it from cover to cover.
  7. She wasn’t a very good driver. In fact, she terrified me behind the wheel.
  8. She had many aliases. The first one I remember is “Aunt Jo” from my cousins. I never knew if my Aunt Sylvia named her that, or if at one time she preferred to be called “Jo”. I guess it is a mystery. Later she was “Mama Jo” to children she babysat. My father called her Scrooge — I have no idea why. Eventually she became Nina–everyone called her Nina Greening whether she was their grandmother or not. Colby, her first grandchild, named her that. It fit.

I will miss her so very much, and words cannot do her lifetime justice. She’d lived a hard life, and continued to fight the heart condition that left her so sick for nearly twenty years. There was once, when I was a very young child, when things were not very good–by not good I mean they repossessed our vacuum cleaner, turned off our propane, the phone was disconnected, and only eating what we raised or killed–in that time I remember asking her, “Will we make it?” and she responded, “We have to.” It is that gritty determination that she bestowed upon me that I am most thankful for.

Now for some pictures: Mrs. Greenbean took these. You can see the ground was wet and muddy, and rain threatened the whole time. Nature is beginning to reclaim the yard, and it has already reclaimed most of the fields.