Braveheart, Richard Rohr, and the Future of Evangelical Men

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No blue face paint required for Richard Rohr to draw a crowd.

If you pulled me aside during my college years and asked me how the followers of a crucified religious leader ended up idolizing a military leader in Medieval Scotland as the pinnacle of manhood, character, and leadership, I probably would have thought you were just trying to start a fight. William Wallace, the Scottish military leader depicted in the film had everything a guy could want: charisma, character, convictions, and courage, just to name a few of his qualities that made him a favorite in the 1990’s evangelical male subculture.

I wasn’t necessarily immersed in the teachings of books like Wild at Heart or the more aggressive pastors who relied on military metaphors for their messages, but I had certainly spent enough time in the evangelical subculture to get the message: real men are tough fighters who fight for things.

Men fight for their marriages.

Men fight for their children.

Men fight for their communities.

Men fight for their country when necessary.

The literature surrounding evangelical men relied heavily on military or sports metaphors in order to illustrate the struggles, battles, and competitions that men face every day. Lust was every man’s battle. The spiritually equipped wore the full armor of God (which was actually all defensive in nature, but still, it had the right ring of “battle).

While evangelical men were immersed in militaristic fighting metaphors that turned Braveheart into our narrative of choice, there’s been a notable shift among evangelical men today. In an interview on the Liturgist podcast, Richard Rohr shared that one of his largest segments of readers are these evangelical young men.

Richard Rohr is about as far away from William Wallace as you can get. This peaceful, cheerfully celibate Franciscan Friar speaks about holding tensions, finding a third way, and responding to even our worst enemies with compassion and prayer. Rohr challenges us to move beyond dualistic thinking that pits the world into black and white sides or categories. If you stick with his daily newsletter long enough, you’ll start to catch on to his contemplative, peacemaking vibe.

If you’ve read Rohr’s books such as Falling Upward and Immortal Diamond, you’ll know that he associates dualistic thinking with our younger years. Youth need to think this way as they sort the world into black and white, right and wrong. However, he also challenges us to move beyond that reductive mindset as we age so that we can see the world with greater compassion and unity in light of the love and mercy of God.

If Richard Rohr ever used a military metaphor, I can only presume it would illustrate how to be a bad soldier.

While I can’t draw a straight line between the popularity of Braveheart for evangelical young men in the 1990’s and Rohr’s popularity among the same cohort roughly 20 years later, I have a theory that Rohr appeals to many evangelical men who are weary of fighting, proving themselves, and splitting a gray world into black and white sides. While, I’ve always been more disposed toward peacemaking in the first place, I’ve noticed that the tough talk for evangelical men that I uneasily accepted in the 1990’s just doesn’t work for me or for many of the men I know. We know that loving God and loving one another doesn’t require learning to fight for things, and we can actually hold ourselves back by sorting life into sides we are for or against as we strive to prove ourselves worthy with flawless character.

Even among the men I know who hunt, lift weights, or dominate in sports, there’s a greater desire to find unity, health, and compassion in their Christian commitments. They’re interested in building rather than fighting. They want to know how Jesus can help them love others rather than preparing for the next battle against the latest enemy. The pursuit of contemplative prayer resonates with this group because this practice helps us discover that God has already accepted us and is already present. That is a far cry from proving ourselves as men, and it’s enough to make guys like me want to cry.

I recognize that these sketches aren’t true for every evangelical man I know who grew up in the 1990’s. However, I suspect there’s a sizeable number of evangelical men today who would much rather skip William Wallace hacking English soldiers to death.

It’s tempting to say that Rohr is the anti-Wallace, but then that would venture into the dualistic thinking he avoids. The truth is that deep down in our hearts, every man wants to belong and to be accepted. God’s love is more than able to meet that need. We’re all wired differently, so we may receive that message in different ways. If anything, Richard Rohr encourages us to wipe off the blue face paint, lay our weapons down, and dare to believe that God’s love is the freedom we don’t have to fight for.

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I’m Not Eager to Lose But I’m Working on It

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I like to think I’m the most insecure person ever. You may disagree because you know for a fact that you’re actually way more insecure. Whether or not I own the title as the most insecure person ever, I’ll bet we can all relate to the desire to prove ourselves in order to alleviate our fears about ourselves.

What if I don’t fit in?

What if people mock me?

What if someone secretly resents me?

I want to prove that I’m OK and that I belong, and that can especially hold true with my faith and beliefs. I’ve spent a good deal of time demonstrating definitively that anyone who would ever question my beliefs or my place within a particular tribe is misguided, stupid, or just plain mean. I’ve devoted plenty of time devising ways to support arguments for either my place or the place of friends who hold to beliefs similar to my own.

It’s disconcerting when you spend the majority of your life considering yourself a Christian, and then someone comes along shouting, “Not so fast! I have definitive proof that you’re not only in error, you’re an enemy of your faith!”

Even if the claims are baseless, they’re still really jarring. We all want to prove that we’re OK and that we belong. No one wants to be left out of the group. We all have such a strong desire to belong that we’d rather fight back than lose an argument that could insert even the slightest bit of doubt.

This is why forms of black and white thinking or fundamentalism become so appealing. If you’re a true believer with flawless beliefs and practices, no one can call you out. Better yet, if you take the offensive against anyone who pushes against the boundaries, you become a hero and defender of the insiders. The defenders of the insiders are the least likely to be called out because they become indispensible.

If you’ve seen any of my Rohr for Writers posts and you’re familiar with Rohr, you may know that Rohr encourages more of a centered set approach to theology and life in general. We define and orient ourselves by what we’re pursuing rather than maintaining particular boundaries of beliefs. Centered set thinking believes that, in the case of Christianity, life transformation happens in the pursuit of Christ rather than in keeping a list of rules. You could say that the epistle to the Galatians directs us toward centered set thinking:

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” Galatians 3:1-3, NIV

We are changed by what we pursue, not by what we defend.

IN order to adopt a more centered set approach to Christ that leaves the boundary making to others, it’s inevitable that we’ll have to step back and let them win. We’ll have to accept that in the eyes of some people we’ll have lost and become outsiders.

Along this line of thinking, Rohr writes about the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare in his book Eager to Love in order to make a case for preemptive losing. As you may guess by the title, Rohr argues that Francis and Clare weren’t eager for a debate. They were eager to love, and the most perfect way they found to love was from a non-competitive position. They chose to lose right from the start rather than minister out of influence, power, or control.

Rohr notes that Francis and his friars were mocked and abused in the early days of their ministry. People didn’t honor Francis and his friars because they looked like fools and losers. They had left money behind in order to beg for their daily bread. They left secure work behind to rebuild crumbling, abandoned churches.

Who would give these men money or food?

Who would go to their crumbling churches?

People beat them up, spat on them, and insulted them.

If Francis and his friars wanted to win, to be influential, and to belong to the class and power systems of their day, these insults would have been devastating. It’s a wonder that they didn’t give up.

However, they chose to begin by losing. Without wanting to win, they were free to love others. They didn’t fight for a place at the table. They set up their own tables where anyone was welcome.

There’s a really big challenge in looking back on the saints from so long ago: everyone wants to be on the same side as the saint in question. In fact, Rohr’s misgivings about his own Franciscan order are clearly evident throughout Eager to Love. Even the Franciscans aren’t sure how to live like St. Francis! It’s certainly tricky when an order established as an outsider receives a certain amount of insider status. All the same, Rohr’s portrait of Francis sticks with me and challenges me to think and live quite differently than what is natural.

My default in life is to fight for my place. I want to belong. I want to be liked.

Who would choose to let people mock him and laugh at him?

Who in his right mind would choose to be left out?

Who would choose to lose?

Perhaps a madman of sorts would choose to lose because he no longer wants to fight. He sees how empty that fight has left him. And when you’re tired of fighting, you may as well try something else.

I’ve grown weary of fighting for my place, even if I struggle daily with my desire to belong and to be respected. I don’t know what this will continue to look like each day, but I’ve been trying to stop fighting against my theological opponents as much as possible. I’ve long since tried to stop defending the boundaries of my faith in order to work on a more Christ-centered, centered set approach.

Nevertheless, I’m still tempted to defend the wisdom of a centered set approach. I would far prefer for my approach to become the majority position that is respected and honored—preferably with a book deal or two tossed in for good measure. I have a feeling that the people who establish themselves as the defenders and boundary keepers will generally work to solidify their positions.

I’m not sure how I’ll know if I’ve “succeeded” at losing, but I’m still giving losing a shot.

I’m eager to love, even if I’m still not eager to lose.

I suspect that my eagerness to love will be determined by how much I’m willing to lose.

 

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Rohr for Writers: Stop Calling Yourself a Writer-You Are Loved

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What is your identity? Do you call yourself a writer? I would say that you can write, but you are loved by God first.

Your identity should never hinge on something that you have to do. Your identity should rest on what you have already been given, what no one can take away, and what is perfect and irrefutably true.

Richard Rohr writes in Immortal Diamond:

“Your True Self is who you are, and always have been in God . . . The great surprise and irony is that ‘you,’ or who you think you are, have nothing to do with its original creation or its demise. It’s sort of disempowering and utterly empowering at the same time, isn’t it? All you can do is nurture it.”

Before you put your first word on the page, you have a very important question to answer: How do I determine my self worth?

In other words…

  • Does your identity hinge on the response of others to your writing?
  • Will you feel more secure about yourself if readers respond positively?
  • Will you consider giving up if you don’t reach a certain goal with your writing?

So many struggle with calling themselves “writers” because it’s a murky label. Do you need to write for a certain number of people in order to call yourself a writer? Do you need to attain a certain level of success before you can claim that label? Don’t ask me if I know.

Regardless of whether you think you can call yourself a writer, I wonder if Rohr can help us move beyond these labels and consider ourselves on a deeper level. What if our primary identity is linked to what God says about us? If writing is just something we do, something important that some do more professionally than others, then the words we write or the response of readers cannot change us.

Semantically, we can still refer to ourselves as writers, but it may be helpful to remember that writing is something we do. It’s just a small piece of who we are, even if we devote significant hours to it each week. Even speaking of myself, one who pays the bills through writing each day, I have found it extremely toxic to hinge my identity on my writing.

When I centered my identity around being a writer, I endured the misery of setting goals for myself, failing to meet them, and then enduring the doubts and questions that followed. If I didn’t meet my writing goals, what kind of writer could I consider myself? And if I wasn’t much of a  writer, who am I after all? Could I claim any kind of identity?

Constantly maintaining my identity as a writer drained away my joy, prompted me to spend less time with my family, and created a deep aching that drummed away in my mind. My stress and anxiety sky-rocketed.

Something had to give, and Rohr’s Immortal Diamond spoke directly to the heart of my struggle with writing: my identity was based in large part on calling myself a writer.

When I finally let go of the goals I’d attached to my identity as a writer, admitted failure in a few areas, backed off on what wasn’t working, and committed myself to what seemed more sustainable, I felt like a massive burden had been removed from my shoulders.

I had more energy to devote to my family and even to myself, to say nothing of more free time.

My identity isn’t linked to my writing—at least most days. Writing is my work, my calling, and my ministry. It’s not who I am. There are days when I still struggle to maintain those lines. When they start to blur, I can let too much rest on how others respond to my writing—even the most minuscule social media praise or criticism can swing my day one way or the other. That’s typically a sign that something is out of balance.

Rohr writes that nothing can touch you when you find your identity in God’s love. I find that both immensely appealing and extremely difficult to believe.

Nothing? Really?

While I will surely feel pain, suffering, disappointment, and regret when I rest in my identity as beloved by God, the stakes attached to my writing work are now completely different. I’m still disappointed if people don’t like my work, but it’s not the same kind of dread and devastation. I don’t feel the same need to keep fighting and struggling and working.

My drive is now completely different when I get my identity sorted out before writing. I am free to work hard and to put out my best work, but there is so much less riding on the success of my work. I’m in a much better position to accept criticism and failure. Best yet, if things don’t work out, I can just try something else.

I don’t see this identity in God as a card you receive and carry with unwavering assurance every day. It’s not like you either have it or you don’t. I see it as more of a  continuum. While I experienced a freeing epiphany while reading Immortal Diamond, I don’t see myself completely in the clear at this point. 

As you begin writing today, this week, next month, or next year, the first thing you need to know is that you are loved by God—period. You are loved and pursued because there aren’t any footnotes, endnotes, or “syke!” comments in John 3:16. God so loved the world, and if you’re part of the world right now, then that includes you.

Jesus spoke of himself as the vine, and we’re the branches attached to that vine. So if you want to know more about who you are as a branch, the only way to look is back to the vine itself. We can’t do anything to change the vine, and so we can rest in that security and stability.

It will be an ongoing learning process. I doubt I’ll ever be done. However, the crazy thing about finding my identity in God’s love is that I’m now free to enjoy writing for what it is. It’s like writing occupies its own cozy little corner in my life. I want to excel as a writer, but my identity isn’t wrapped up in it.

I’m learning how to be free to write because I’m learning how to receive the freedom of God’s love.

About This Series

Rohr for Writers is a new blog series at www.edcyzewski.com that is based on the ways Richard Rohr’s writing speaks to writers. We’re going to spend the first few weeks looking at key quotes from Immortal Diamond.

Learn More about Prayer and Writing

You can grow in both your prayer and writing by developing the same practices. Check out my new book Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together to learn simple practices you can incorporate into your day right now.