“Many have called men back to the church. Now it’s time to call the church back to men.” This phrase from the Introduction sums up the new edition of David Murrow’s book Why Men Hate Going To Church, a jeremiad against the state of Anglo-American Christianity. In offering a diagnosis of the “gender gap” he identifies in churches, Murrow insists that nothing will do but a complete revision of the way Christianity is taught, preached and practised. If the Church does not want to disappear, he argues, it must return its focus to where Jesus himself placed it: the needs, desires and leadership of men. In developing this argument he draws on a range of sources purporting to show that men and women have entirely different natures, that Christianity has been taken over by women to serve their own agenda, and that “masculine” men have been betrayed by “feminised” men. It is a highly successful and deeply misguided book, which depicts men as misogynist, homophobic, insecure and power-hungry whilst suggesting that wealth and masculinity are the central concerns of Christianity.
Murrow’s central thesis is that churches of all denominations are suffering a severe “gender gap” which makes them ineffective and moribund. Borrowing a phrase from a unnamed business guru, to the effect that “your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting”, he concludes that “the modern church system is engineered to reach women” (4, 5). To prove this, he offers two parallel lists of characteristics (such as “Competence – Love”, “Self-sufficiency – Community” “Results – Nurturing”, “Competition – Personal expression”) and asks readers to identify which list better fits their idea of Christ’s disciples and a good Christian (6). Springing his trap on the next page, Murrow reveals that the lists are in fact borrowed from John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and that if the reader has mostly picked from the second of each pair, it proves “most people think of Christ as having the values that come naturally to a woman” (7).
This is typical of the book’s use of evidence: a dating manual is brought in to establish the supposedly essential nature of men and women, despite its lack of scientific basis and the fact that it has been repeatedly demolished by critiques such as Fine’s Delusions of Gender and Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus. In fact to complain about the lack of rigour in this method is rather missing the point since, like Gray himself, Murrow does not attempt to build up a coherent arguments based on historical, scientific or textual evidence. He relies on observations of everyday life – sometimes an overtly invented archetypical man, sometimes an anecdote from a unnamed source – intended to strike a chord in the reader, who is then told that their recognition of the social stereotype (that men don’t like knitting, that boys like to run around a lot) is evidence of underlying and immutable truths about men and women. Not only are these truths immutable, they are also totally distinctive, since in his account men and women are different creatures. A man may display “feminised” characteristics, such as an enjoyment of music or a talent for creative writing, but this only serves to emphasize how unlike “most” men he is for Murrow. Why Men Hate Going To Church presents gender as the secret which underpins the religious upheavals of the past centuries, and which can unlock the future.
Murrow’s analysis uses the pop-psychology theories of writers like Gray to describe a church which is welcoming towards women and thus (for him) necessarily hostile towards men. Men do not like to think of themselves in terms of relationships, men do not like contact with other people, men do not like formal clothes, men are not good at verbal communication or reading, men do not have good motor skills and men cannot sit still (99; 102/195; 104/116; 117, 121). In the world Murrow’s book imagines, these are both unchangeable facts about men, and evidence that churches are engineered to marginalise men and elevate women over them. His vision of reality needs to categorise almost everything into “masculine” and “feminine”, encouraging an attitude that almost everything is either with men or against men. The masculinity he describes defines itself so anxiously against what it perceives as “feminine” (which for Murrow is synonymous with both women and gay men) that it cannot accept the presence of anything “feminine” associated with itself. Manhood is threatened by curtains, hymns with difficult words, women preaching, having to sit still, because these might involve a man finding himself doing something “feminine”.
Perhaps inevitably this means that Murrow presents men as both naturally powerful and continually fragile and threatened. Their “masculinity banks”, which are filled by activities such as winning competitions, sleeping with younger women, or having a prestigious and well-paid job, are in continual danger of being emptied if they do something “girly” such as holding their wife’s handbag for a moment whilst she looks for something (39). Men’s machismo and heroism is both a part of the natural order (because it is necessary for society itself to survive), but also needs to be continually practised if men aren’t to become cowardly and “feminised” (38). The same combination of pop psych and insecurity appears in a chapter on “Twelve things Men Fear About Church”, in which the reader is told that men’s brain structure means they are more subject to trauma than women, and that therefore if boys are bored or marginalised in church “they may feel distressed every time they enter a house of worship” (79). Likewise, “a man’s greatest fear is powerlessness”, and in going to a traditional church he gives up control over his time because he cannot simply get up and leave if he finds the sermon tedious. He may even be told that God is more powerful than him, making him anxious about his ability to control everything (80).
The idea that there are gay people in the church may prevent a man from wanting to join a men’s group, the worry that he might be perceived as soft will stop him mentioning Christianity to his friends, and men have a powerful fear that going to church might make other men imagine he is not having lots of sex (80-2). The men whom Murrow presents as absolutely paradigmatic – the “regular guys” with which the world is filled – are continually anxious, threatened by everything from their wife’s handbag to the existence of gay people. Their social role requires them to undergo continual tests of their masculinity which give them little pleasure or fulfilment, their brain structure makes them prone to being traumatised (not triggered, but traumatised) by something as simple as being bored or uncomfortable and they cannot be around soft furnishings without feeling that they might be polluted. Murrow genuinely gives rules so that people can practice “safe hugging” with men, which include making sure it involves a slap on the back which hurts slightly to ensure no-one thinks they might enjoy physical contact (195). It is hardly surprising these men hate going to church: after Murrow has detailed their anxieties, hatreds and fears, the reader might assume they’re incapable of going anywhere which involves other people.
Analyzed like this, it seems impossible that Murrow could be taken seriously. Yet he clearly is, given the large numbers of books he has sold. I’m bothering to write about Why Men Hate Going To Church not because it is comically extreme, but because it demonstrates in unusually clear terms a lot of the opinions and assumptions which underlie discussions of gender, leadership and Christianity in Anglo-American culture. His blend of crude evolutionary psychology, power-worship and misogyny will be all too familiar for many inside and outside Christian churches, which it why I thought it might be useful to discuss, beyond the book’s own influence. It might be particularly important given the final chapters of Why Men Hate Going To Church, in which Murrow makes it clear he doesn’t want the Christian church to make space for men who feel marginalised. He wants everyone else to make them the focus of church life and worship. He states bluntly that churches shouldn’t contain a men’s ministry programme, they should be a men’s ministry programme, an idea which he took from Mark Driscoll (210). For Murrow, the accounts of Jesus’ action in the Gospels show that “the basic unit of God’s church is not…the congregation…it’s the small men’s group” (214). Men’s leadership, men’s perceived needs, and men’s masculinity are the absolute focus of Christian action for Murrow, and his model of gender means that anything which does not fall into those categories is threatening them. I think this is a profoundly dangerous message, and one which has found eager listeners across the UK and the US.