Does American Sniper display exemplary biblical manhood? Owen Strachan, the President of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, says yes. While I agree that men must stand for self-sacrifice, virtue, conviction, and opposition to evil, we need to abandon the idea that the “traditional American cowboy” archetype — which Strachan seems to believe is modeled in American Sniper — is the model of biblical masculinity.
Arguing from cultural forms of manhood is a dangerous way to get to the Gospel.Promoting a tough, “traditional” American manhood as biblical manhood exemplifies a common approach in some evangelical circles that urgently has to change. (Here’s a Christianity Today article describing and critiquing the “new masculinity” movement.) Mark Driscoll, for example, said that Jesus, Paul, and John the Baptist were “heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose dudes.” He called on men to not be “sissified church boys” but rather, “aggressive, assertive, and nonverbal.”
Strachan’s review of American Sniper was far less explicit but nonetheless represents similarly unhealthy aspects of this “new masculinity” mentality. This approach goes too far and damages the cause for advocating biblical understandings of gender.
Does the world need more traditional American masculinity?
“Here’s what stood out to me about American Sniper,” Strachan writes. “It gives America back its traditional vocabulary for manhood.” He continues: “We are in an age that does not want to believe in manhood, at least the traditional kind…. Modern men have had their innate manhood bred out of them.” In contrast to this macho swashbuckling hero, men “want to be snark artists today. We don’t want to be cowboys.” American Sniper’s Kyle represents a model for this sort of “cowboy,” i.e., he’s “a simple man who lives by a black-and-white moral code. He is traditional.”
Strachan calls on Hollywood to make more films displaying this kind of manhood: “There are many people in America who love seeing manly virtue in action. Hollywood doesn’t make many films or TV series for them (for us); it very mistakenly (and to its own box-office detriment!) thinks that we’re all postmodern now, when we assuredly are not.”
This statement is perplexing. He seems to be describing how our emasculated culture devalues manliness, yet (secretly?) craves more of this kind of film. Also, Hollywood is in no shortage of testosterone-driven box office hits. My wife and I currently live in Germany, and my friends here think that’s the only kind of movie Hollywood knows how to make. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy good action movies. But if anything, Hollywood could do with a lot less testosterone and a lot more thoughtfulness (and even artsiness!).
What our world needs is not more “traditional” American masculinity. It needs Christ-like men who are poor in spirit and meek; who hunger and thirst for righteousness; who are merciful and pure in heart; who seek after peace; who are persecuted because of righteousness (Matthew 5:3-10). If Christians could make one request of Hollywood, we should ask for more movies about these men.
Traditional American cowboy manhood is not biblical manhood
Despite good intentions, Christians must dispense of this language about “traditional” American masculinity. The quixotic notion of the “traditional” American man as this tough and virtuous cowboy has little to do with biblical notions of manhood. This masculine ideal is a fiction (one largely reinforced by American Sniper director Clint Eastwood), and for many, a cowboy brings to mind a violent, uncommitted, sexist, braggadocious, foul-mouthed racist with an imperialist hostility towards Native Americans and Mexicans. Good riddance to “the good old days.”
As Christians, we must advocate a biblical manhood that transcends “traditional” American cultural norms. At the very least, this language ostracizes other cultures. When I was in the Middle East, I observed several male friends holding hands. Are we supposed to tell them to adapt to “traditional” American manhood and act in a “better,” more “manly” way? If we’re going to advocate principles of manhood, let’s speak biblical language. Christians must communicate right understandings about gender that incorporate the community of believers both worldwide and throughout the centuries.
In 1 Timothy 3, Paul lists the traits of exemplary men: they are above reproach, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, not drunkards, not violent but gentle, and not quarrelsome. This paints a dramatically different picture than “traditional” American masculinity. Granted, there were times when Paul took aggressive measures to defend truth, but he also expressed his care in a way that “traditional” American masculinity would mock as “sissified”: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7). If we want to encourage right masculinity, gentleness can often go a lot further than mocking others as “sissified church boys.” (We should also ask ourselves how many of these “sissified church boys” were abused or abandoned by “traditional” American men.)
A “traditional” masculine “black-and-white” moral code is also not the same as biblical masculine morality. Many things are black and white and require moral action, especially on issues where Scripture provides clear guidance. But biblical moral manhood and wisdom often necessitate hesitation and “second-guessing” in unclear moral issues. Men must frequently cool down their testosterone and realize that they’re finite and often driven by evil passions, anger, and false thinking that pollutes clear judgment and makes “pulling the trigger” an unwise option. It’s okay (and biblical) for a man to wrestle with and question difficult moral issues — like the war in Iraq.
If God gives me sons, I would not use American Sniper to provide them with a model for biblical manhood. But what about my daughter? Girls dig “traditional” American manliness, according to Strachan, and he thinks they should: “The most interesting sociological nugget I picked up from my viewing of American Sniper was this: the presence of numerous young women in the movie theater.” He rightly stresses that women should value a self-sacrificial man who loves truth, but how does an aggressive soldier embody this better than an artist? I recognize that American Sniper depicts honorable forms of courage, but I would not commend it to my daughter as an example of the type of biblical manhood to look for in a husband.
Traditional American cowboy manhood is not Christ-like
I also would never have my children watch this movie in order to learn about Jesus Christ. Strachan writes: “When we see a hero, an imperfect man, like Chris Kyle taken from us, we are seeing a very, very small picture of the ultimate hero…. For now, good and godly men — and I believe that Chris Kyle was a Christian, based on his clear testimony — must suffer violence. They must die.”
Arguing from cultural forms of manhood is a dangerous way to get to the Gospel. If someone doesn’t accept America’s mission in the war in Iraq or Chris Kyle’s “traditional” American style of manhood, does that mean they’re rejecting Christ? I doubt Strachan would say so, but his approach could easily lead some to think this way.
Promoting Chris Kyle as an exemplary Christ-like figure undermines biblical manhood and Christian discipleship. It communicates that “traditional” American men are more like Jesus, making some feel comfortable in their cheap, “traditional” Americanized cultural Christianity while telling everyone else outside of that manly mold that they’re falling short.
I believe that Chris Kyle’s sacrifice was honorable in many ways, but by imitating him are we really imitating Christ? Much of what Strachan wrote in his review was helpful and true, but we can’t use a fictional “traditional” American cowboy manhood to arrive there.