Jan 20, 2014

The evangelical masculinity of ... Allen Ginsberg?

American evangelical concern about the manliness of men is not new. To contrast themselves to the Victorian image of effeminate clerics, evangelicals celebrated stories of circuit riders, who were basically rough-and-tumble cowboys for the gospel. Billy Sunday and Billy Graham both, despite their diminutive names, found lots of opportunities to mention their athletic prowess. Modern evangelicals such as Tim LaHaye have long argued that social problems start and end with the actions taken by men to be, or not to be, really truly men.

Among the modern Reformed, this may be even more pronounced. Doctrines of grace are presented, along with a taste for beer and a strong preference for beards and the writings of Puritans, as the man's man alternative to feminized Christianity.

For New Calvinists like Mark Driscoll, it sometimes seems like being a "sissy" is a heresy. Maybe it's even the heresy, since orthodoxy is presented, again and again, as a matter of manliness and manning up. 

One gets the sense that the real trouble with the modern American church is most fundamentally an issue of testosterone.

It's not surprising, then, that Darrin Patrick, a pastor and church planter with Acts 29, a group that Driscoll founded and which considers itself both evangelical and Reformed, would write a book about manliness. Nor is it surprising, really, that the book would address itself not to the faithful, but to "dudes."

What is perhaps a bit surprising is how the cover image of the book seems to invoke neither an evangelical nor a Reformed hero, but the beat poet, Allen Ginsberg. 

See for yourself:


The thick glasses and that heavy beard are iconic. They're icons, however, of the poet who wrote Howl and Wichita Vortex Sutra, and who served as the elder statesman for hippies, teaching them to chant Ommm in parks, to oppose capitalism with art, to oppose war with art, and to let themselves be free. This is a poet who wore the mantle of Walt Whitman. He took up Whitman's sense of language and Americanness, his expansive, democratic love of life and the masses, and also his expression of homosexual desire.

Whereas Whitman's homoerotic celebrations and exultations tend to be implicit, layered into passionate descriptions of beards and young men and manly smells, Ginsberg's are explicit (and also layered into passionate, sometimes bawdy descriptions of masculine bodies, his own and others). Both poets celebrate themselves -- euphemistically and not -- in ways that make conservative Christians uneasy. Both poets are dedicated to masculinity, but of a different sort than Patrick is comfortable with, presumably. 

But the cover of Patrick's forthcoming has this graphic image of a face, which looks exactly like Ginsberg's face: 


Perhaps someone at Thomas Nelson is being a bit subversive, here? Perhaps the cover designer is a fan of Ginsberg, quoting lines about the "best minds of my generation," those "angelheaded hipsters" who "reappeared on the West Coast investigating the FBI in beards and shorts / with big pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin passing out incompre- / hensible leaflets"?

Whether intentional or no, there's something quite subversive about this image of masculinity:


In fact, that's one of the persistent problems of images and ideas of manhood. They're not as sturdy or stable as one might imagine. Fetishes for fathers and for men's men can quickly get quite ... queer.

That's something Ginsberg really loved. Patrick, one guesses, feels differently.