Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” begins with a holier-than-thou character having a book, along with her sin, thrown in her face. She returns home with a bruised face and bruised pride to reflect on her sins. For many of us, reading Jesus and John Wayne might feel a little like that. Indeed, Kristin Kobes Du Mez’ book is one that can help jolt us to the reality of what we have made and become. It’s painful, of course, but necessary. Believing that wounds from a friend can be trusted (Pro 27:6), we would do well to heed those Jesus and John Wayne offers.

I have spent my life in evangelical circles, and most, if not all, of the names mentioned in Jesus and John Wayne were familiar to me. The book helped me put the stars I’ve seen through the decades into alignment, revealing a constellation of our failures. It helps us see that that “one time” when we saw women treated badly was actually one of many. It helps us see the ideological distance between soft-spoken James Dobson and our blustery racist grandpa aren’t as vast as we had assumed. Jesus and John Wayne is well-timed, and important. Evangelicals need to come to terms with how they have used power and gender to harm people. Because we cannot continue to claim that abuse scandals or Christian nationalists are outliers. Du Mez’s work throws the closet doors wide open, and our skeletons are on full display.

However, despite the good I see in Du Mez’ work, I have to admit my mixed feelings about it. Perhaps I’m a particularly needy reader, but if Du Mez hopes to persuade skeptical readers, you wouldn’t guess it from the book. Due to frequent sarcasm as well as a lack of charity toward its critics and, at times, a lack of evidence to back up its claims, I fear this book will be rejected by many of the people who would most benefit from reading it

Who Said It?

One of the first things I noticed about the book was that by parroting evangelical voices without using direct quotations or citations, Du Mez’ tone unfortunately often reads as sarcastic. This makes it difficult to see her as a friendly critic. As a woman, I cringe at this oft-misused critique, but the problem was prevalent throughout the book so it seems important to mention. It’s difficult to convey in its subtlety, but one example is in the chapter titled, “A New High Priest.” This section, which includes no citations or direct quotes, offers a biting, sarcastic version of evangelical thinking about gender and masculinity in particular: “What makes for a strong leader? A virile (white) man. And what of his vulgarity?…Even sexual assault? Well, boys will be boys…If you wanted a tamer man, castrate him.” Again, this is difficult to demonstrate in a short quote, but because it carries throughout the book it is hard to miss as you read. It will not win Du Mez charitable readings from skeptical evangelicals.

Problematic Assumptions

A more substantial problem was that Du Mez often wrote as if the beliefs of evangelical leaders are self-evidently immoral. In some cases (abuse, for example) their actions are easy to condemn. Sometimes she seems to think that the correct side in a controversial debate is self-evident, such that those on the ‘wrong’ side need not be proven wrong, but merely dismissed. This problem appears most clearly when she attacks elements of 20th and 21st century American evangelicalism that are, in fact, common American elements of even traditional Christian beliefs. Without this sort of nuance in her analysis, it becomes too easy for some to put her words in the same wastebasket as those who accuse them of being on the “wrong side of history.”

One example occurs in her first chapter. Du Mez notes that Billy Graham used “athletic and military metaphors to make perfectly clear that his faith did not conflict with his masculinity,” and similar metaphors to describe Jesus (23). She shares this without demonstrating that this language is unique to evangelicalism. For example, the apostle Paul uses military metaphors to describe the Christian life. Christ himself is pictured as a commander of an army in the book of Revelation.[1] Additionally, Just War theory goes back as far as the fourth century, so military support has, in some sense, long been a part of Christian culture. It’s possible that American evangelicals use these images more often than others or in ways that are out of step with the biblical usage. But Du Mez uses this language to paint a picture of evangelical extremes without accounting for its broader use in Scripture and the Christian tradition more generally. What’s more, she acknowledges at times that trends in evangelicalism corresponded to similar trends in broader American culture, yet she does not show how evangelicals set themselves apart as being uniquely bad in their embrace of these trends.[2] Her citations, then, seem to work against her argument. This places disproportional blame on evangelicals for ills that plague American culture more broadly.

False Motives

Relatedly, she makes claims about the motives of some leaders without substantiating them. In her introduction, Du Mez states “[Evangelicalism is a movement] forged over time by individuals and organizations with varied motivations…and, for many, to extend their own power” (14). Unfortunately, she does not cite trustworthy sources to demonstrate this is the case (indeed there are no citations on this particular statement). Rather, throughout the book her conclusions in this regard appear to rest on analysis from sources that appear irrelevant or are clearly antagonistic outsiders. For example, in her chapter, “Discipline and Command,” she argues that James Dobson’s real agenda was gaining political protection for patriarchy. To prove it, she cites a cognitive linguist’s theory of the relationship between family and politics (86), with no argument for its validity or relevance.[3] Yet she notes that “the vast majority of [Dobson’s] organization’s resources remained devoted to its ‘family ministries.’” It is difficult to believe her argument as stated when the only measurable facts she mentions seem to indicate the opposite.

Similarly, she says that, when confronted with evangelical feminists, “even denominational officials” of the Southern Baptists “…lacked…theological prowess and were in fact functionally atheological” (109). This may have been the case, but she doesn’t present any evidence. I wondered—was this her own judgement, or have others agreed? Unfortunately, the singular citation in this section left my questions unanswered.[4] A similar critique could be made regarding the sections covering C.J. Mahaney’s reinstatement after the abuse scandal at Sovereign Grace Ministries. She claims Mahaney’s friends were “loyal because of a shared stake in a patriarchal ‘gospel,’ and also, it turns out, because Mahaney had been lining their pockets” (282). I share her frustration at their silence, but her only citation here leads to a clearly antagonistic article on Medium that assumes that the mere existence of generous honorariums and donations proves that this is why his friends were silent. I don’t know why they didn’t speak out, but she did not lay out a convincing argument that money was their motivation. Accusations are not proof, particularly when there are much simpler explanations, like decade-long friendships and simple affection.[5] She also claims Mahaney’s friends remained quiet because of their shared commitment to patriarchy, but does not demonstrate this was the case. This was certainly a point of unity between them, but, as we all know, correlation is not causation. Du Mez may, of course, be correct in her critiques. But the lack of substantiation works against her argument.

Is it worth it?

The truth is, while these problems are significant and frustrating because of what they do to the book’s overall credibility, I want people to read Jesus and John Wayne. Even with its weakness in argument and citations, despite the issues of sarcasm and assumption, there is much within the book that rings true for those of us with lived experience. We’ve seen many of these issues with our own eyes: the dismissive responses, the sexist comments, the failure to act on the part of victims, the exaggerated responses to perceived cultural threats. For those of us who have struggled to make sense of our evangelical culture, we don’t need citations to tell us what we already know. The best part of Du Mez’s work is that it makes sense of our experiences, and brings order to what we perhaps have struggled to piece together on our own. It’s not a perfect book. But it’s important.

In the final scene of “Revelation,” the sinner stands in a pig-pen, watching a blazing sunset and repenting. In the same way, despite the shortcomings of Jesus and John Wayne, I hope it will help us look up from our sin into the vibrant sky of God’s mercy. I hope that, despite its flaws, Du Mez’ work can help bring about the words she poignantly wrote in her conclusion—and that “what was once done might also be undone” (304).

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Footnotes

  1. Phil 2:25; Philemon 1:2; 2 Tim 2:3–4; 1 Cor 9:7.; Rev 9:11–16
  2. On page 27 she says, “..there was nothing altogether unique about Graham’s instructions to husbands and wives…[his] message resonated within and beyond the evangelical fold.”
  3. She also fails to acknowledge that the protection and support of the nuclear family as a means to economic, and cultural flourishing is not just an evangelical idea. It is also part of Catholic tradition (see Gaudium et spes, for example, among others).
  4. The citation in this section refers to an article entitled “A New Kind of Patriarchy: Inerrancy and Masculinity in the Southern Baptist Convention, 1879–2000.” The position of the citation makes it difficult to determine if it refers to the concept of theological prowess or something later in the paragraph, and the source itself requires access to the MUSE database. Given that I’m one of many who do not have access to academic databases, it would be nice to have more detail in the text or citation.
  5. One other aspect of this is the belief that these sorts of conversations should happen in public, due to a particular interpretation of conflict resolution as laid out in Matthew 18. This interpretation, In my own experience, has led to the silence of evangelical leaders.
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Posted by Jamie Carlson

Jamie Carlson (MA Catholic Studies) lives in Minnesota, where she sometimes finds time to write when her young children are sleeping. She enjoys theology, literature, philosophy, and history and loves to weave her interests together in her writing. You can find more of her work on her blog, http://unhurriedchase.com, and at The Gospel Coalition, and follow her on Twitter at @UnhurriedChase.

11 Comments

  1. I just started reading this book and have noticed some of the same problems you bring up here. I don’t generally read reviews of a book while I am reading the same book, but I’m glad I did this time. If I get really frustrated with the author’s tone as I continue the book, I’ll remember your review and keep reading. Thanks!

    Reply

  2. Thank you. I’ll likely read this at one point but I’ve noticed these aspects in other critiques of Evangelicalism — constant snark and smirky dismissive attitudes that claims it can read the minds of “Them.” I read John Fea’s “Believe Me” and it was a major fault in that book as well — sweeping generalizations followed by prooftexts that are not always that strong.

    There’s a whole genre of books explaining Trumpism and the greater US Evangelical movement to outsiders. Some are better than others, but there are usually two major flaws I’ve noticed in these works:

    1) A bad habit of trying to connect random people in Evangelicalism to the book’s Major Theme. It’s mentioned here with Dobson and Graham despite clear evidence it’s not terribly connected. A some point it just sounds like Jack VanImpe reading Revelation into a news story.

    2) An apparent lack of knowledge of a Church culture outside of the Binary US-Evangelical/US-Mainline. No understanding of evangelicalism worldwide. No understanding that male-heavy leadership is pretty common in the movement (not to mention Catholicism and Orthodoxy) around the world – for better or for worse. No understanding of why this desire for a strongman is global: Duterte in The Philippines, Kagame in Rwanda, Bolsonaro in Brazil, etc. Why? It can’t just be FoxNews, White Nationalism and Dobson, which are usually the boogeymen in this Genre. Putting Trumpist Evangelicalism into a greater context would be helpful, even if it means the thesis would have to be changed.

    I’ll read this one too, but I’m not optimistic it’s that different from the rest of the onslaught of books since 2015.

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  3. Thanks for this review. I’ve read the book and came away with a very different impression of her tone. In both the book and subsequent interviews I thought Du Mez expressed herself with restraint. “Frequent sarcasm and lack of charity” didn’t come through for me at all.

    Reply

    1. I agree. The book is about as sympathetic as it can be, and her interviews on YouTube reveal that she’s not some angry feminist. It seems like the intent here is to trash her and her book so as to dissuade people from reading it and being convinced by her persuasive historical argument.

      Reply

  4. I haven’t read the book, but your review is great! Sounds like the book is more “preaching to the choir” rather than providing the nuanced and water-tight arguments needed to convince those she’s actually critiquing. I think it’s easier and more interesting to offer a “bold” or “shocking” thesis, with a snarky attitude, that makes for an exciting and passionate reading, rather than offer a “softer” more nuanced critique, that allows for more diversity of thought and ideas under the surface of American evangelicalism. Still, it needs to be said: The evangelicalism of America has some issues that need to be addressed, and some concerning themes that seem to keep bubbling up.

    Reply

    1. I doubt that the book’s author is necessarily trying to convince those whom she’s critiquing. Rather, she’s seeking to reveal what their true motives are. Reactionary political movements often try to cloak themselves in the garb of traditional religious movements. But they often exhibit little fidelity to the principles of that religion. The beauty of Trump is that he forced guys like Dobson, Metaxas, Franklin Graham, and the like to show that they had little fidelity to the creeds of Christendom and gave their principal fidelity to the goals of the KKK and its notion of a patriarchal society led by white men. She’s disclosing the fraud. It shouldn’t be a critique to suggest that her thesis fails because she failed to convince the fraudsters to confess of their sins, repent, and abandon their patriarchal white supremacy.

      Reply

  5. I would never refer to Du Mez as a “friend” whose criticisms can be trusted. She’s a bigot who writes with a denigrating bias against Evangelicals. You touch on this later in your article. Friends do not spit on friends nor do they twist or color things to make other friends look bad. With friends like that who needs enemies. I am amazed that she’s allowed to teach at Calvin.

    Further, it’s ironic that she’s teaching at a college named after a Christian leader whose traits she denigrates. She’s gotta eat and they pay the bills. I’d bet that at some point she’ll challenge Calvin to change their name to someone less austere and commanding. I’m sure she’s loving her 15 minutes of fame in the anti-Christian spotlight.

    Jamie Carlson does highlight some of the problems and failures that Du Mez cites related to Evangelicals. She does so with grace and context. Unlike Du Mez, she is intelligent and honest enough to recognize that accusations are not evidence. All people, male or female, tend to get a little drunk on power. For Christians that is no excuse; we are commanded to be humble and gracious, yet it happens and we fail.

    Reply

    1. Are you sure you’re not looking in the mirror? It seems like someone’s ego is a bit fragile.

      Reply

  6. I’ve nearly finished J&JW, and have been having the exact struggle laid out in this review. I’m precisely the kind of evangelical who has been softened up over the last five years to be receptive to its message, but the important (and true) story presented is too often buried in lazy assumptions and seeming malice. I was hoping this would be the kind of book I could recommend to other conservative evangelicals open to necessary critiques of our odd subculture. Unfortunately, the lack of context and nuance, and the clear disdain she has for her subjects, make it a book I could only recommend to the already converted.

    Reply

  7. […] about yet. A lot of thoughts better left unsaid. But one thing that I did write out loud was a review of Jesus and John Wayne for Mere Orthodoxy. The review led to a rather…lively…discussion online, which some of […]

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  8. […] For some not-so-favorable reviews see, Accusations Aren’t Evidence: Responding to “Jesus and John Wayne” […]

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