Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green strikes me as a sincere and eloquent writer. I respect her, but I do not always agree with her. This is one of those times. A Facebook friend posted a link to a well-trafficked article in which Mathewes-Green explains why Orthodoxy is especially attractive to men. Rather than speculate about why men might like the Orthodox Church, she asks them, and then arranges their answers topically. But her suggestions for why Orthodoxy might appeal to men are illogical, silly, dangerous to the heart of Orthodoxy, and maybe even a little bit sinful.
The Illogical – The author’s post begs the question. When it comes to words and expressions that are most misused in contemporary English, “begging the question” is right up there with “literally” (e.g. “I literally died”). “Begs the question” does not mean “raises the question.” It means that a point of argument presumes the conclusion, such as saying, “God must exist because the Bible says so.” Asking men what they like about Orthodoxy is the right approach, but the point she wants to prove seems to color her analysis of their responses. Mathewes-Green does not consider that many of the men’s answers might be true for women too. She talks at length about how men like challenge, discipline, and the way Orthodoxy stresses doing over feeling, but none of those traits is exclusively masculine. I see little evidence that women prefer lazily watching chick-flicks to fasting, confession, and prayer. (Consider this example or this one.) I mean, my mom is a world class saber fencer. If you want to tell her that women don’t like challenge and discipline, make sure you are standing at least 10 feet away and wearing good running shoes first.
The Silly – Why might some men be attracted to Orthodoxy? According to one of her respondents, “Beards!” … Beards? Really? … It is true that our priests tend to have facial hair. I also concede that the tones of the church have fewer highs and lows, which can make them easier for men to sing. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe if you became Orthodox because you like beards and baritones, you are probably in it for the wrong reasons.
The Dangerous – To be fair, I should clarify that I object more to the comments of the author’s respondents than anything she says, but she does have responsibility for the words she quoted. Right after the “Beards!” comment, someone else says of the Orthodox Church, “It’s the last place in the world men aren’t told they’re evil simply for being men.” I think that person should probably go to different places. Or maybe he needs to be nicer to his barista. I’ve been called evil before, but nobody has ever spat in my latte just for being a man. This post may inadvertently give voice to the male persecution complex one finds among some of the shrillest elements of the Christian and political Right. The Orthodox Church must rise above this narrative. Has anyone ever heard of Mark Driscoll? Let’s not be that!
The Sinful – Let me be clear that I am not saying the author is a sinner or that her respondents were sinners. I am saying that this post has the potential to promote pride. Implying that ascetic discipline appeals to the kind of challenge men deeply long for contradicts the point of asceticism itself, which is to eradicate egoism to make more room for God. Fasting and staying awake at all night vigils are not macho, and if we can boast about our asceticism, then we are doing it wrong.
I am a researcher, so I am interested in knowing why, or if, men are more involved in the Orthodox Church than in other faith-communities (though in traditionally Orthodox countries the opposite seems to be the case), but I’d prefer the church not repeat the mistakes of the Church Growth Movement. Implying that certain aspects of Orthodoxy appeal to the “male demographic” comes dangerously close to some of the ill-conceived marketing gimmicks that have turned more than a few evangelical churches into spiritual consumer depots, with franchises and everything! Sociological research is not relevant to our theology. It is possible that a man might come into the Orthodox Church because he was captivated by the priest’s glorious beard, but facial hair cannot create faith. Faith is falling in love, and the church is nothing more than the school of love. Everything else is window dressing.