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.
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. 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. Her citations, then, seem to work against her argument. This places disproportional blame on evangelicals for ills that plague American culture more broadly.
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. 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. 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. 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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- Phil 2:25; Philemon 1:2; 2 Tim 2:3–4; 1 Cor 9:7.; Rev 9:11–16 ↑
- 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.” ↑
- 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). ↑
- 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. ↑
- 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. ↑