muscular christianity re-visited

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Several friends, both real and virtual, have offered posts lately on the muscular Christianity of Mark Driscoll, head pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church. I commend both posts to those who might be interested, particularly because their respective rhetorical tones balance one another well.

A muscular Christian I’ve yet to see Charles Kingsley’s name mentioned in either discussion, but he was the first figure I thought of when I heard about Driscoll’s campaign for a manlier church. In the middle of the Victorian era, at the height of the Oxford movement (whose most prominent figures are John Henry Newman and Edward Pusey), Kingsley lamented the “feminization” of the gospel. His sermons and his novels alike lambaste this weakness as something sub-Christian with invective that Driscoll seems to be at pains to emulate. In time, he came to be seen as the leader of a movement whose opponents offered it the epithet “muscular Christianity” (Kingsley himself preferred the slightly less-brutish adjective, “manly”). The movement spawned the strange conjunction of faith and patriotism that is the Boy Scout movement and the cultural ideology supporting the expansion of the British Empire.

A few years ago, I wrote a paper on Kingsley for a course on gender and spiritual identity. One can hardly find a richer place or period for investigating this connection than Victorian England, which provides a fascinating mirror for thinking about both faith and gender in our own times (and shows how deeply a Victorian hangover affects our own culture). Here is a copy of that paper if anyone is interested in a bit more background or an interesting comparison with Driscoll’s brand of Christianity. From what I know of Driscoll, Kingsley may even come out looking pretty good in that comparison.