A Man Vs. Wild Kind of Christianity

By Michael J. Altman

Jesus didn't tap, but he did like to go hang out in the wilderness.  So does Bear Grylls.  Grylls is the star of Man Vs. Wild on the Discovery Channel.  If you haven't seen it, the basic idea is simple.  Take a witty, fit, and good-looking guy with an accent, give him a pair of cargo pants and a stick of gum, then drop him off in the middle of nowhere and watch him try not to die while cameras document it.  It's awesome.  Really.

Grylls recently did an interview with Relevant, an evangelical magazine for "savvy, spiritual, 20somethings."  In contrast to Art's post about macho Christianity, the Grylls story offers a different sort of male Christian role model.  Grylls describes his faith as simple and thinks of his relationship with God as a feeling of being "home" or being "held."  As the story puts it:

“What does it mean? It’s about being strengthened. It’s about having a backbone run through you from the Person who made you. It’s about being able to climb the biggest mountains in the world with the Person who made them. 
When it comes to faith, life and survival, Grylls isn’t one to complicate things. Overthinking, overanalyzing ... it’s the stuff that gets you killed.

Grylls' view of the Christian life, like Billy Sunday and other macho men of God, emphasizes simplicity.  It doesn't require much thought to hit the sawdust trail, nor does it overthinking help you catch a wild rabbit.  Real Christian men just react.  Real Christian men also have strength.  But Gryll's strength isn't the Billy Sunday or Jason David Frank brand.  Rather, it's more Henry David Thoreau or Thomas Merton.  It's about personal achievement and self-realization.  It's about climbing mountains, fording rivers, and fishing instead of overpowering the world for Christ.  It's about survival instead of conquest.

This simplicity of faith in Jesus stands in stark contrast to "religion."

“I remember having one moment when some really good friends turned their back on me in a really nasty way,” Grylls says. “And I remember praying a simple prayer up a tree one evening and saying, ‘God, if you’re like I knew you as a kid, would you be that friend again?’ And it was no more complicated than that. And actually the amazing thing is that all God asks is that we sort of open the door and He’ll do the rest. So often we kinda hide behind our yearning for love and acceptance with loads of complicated theological questions, and actually once that’s stripped away what we really are is just somebody who wants to have that relationship with your Father.”
Grylls says there was something comforting about realizing Jesus wasn’t all about religion—that Jesus was, in fact, “the least religious person you’ll meet.”
“Jesus never said, ‘I’ve come so you can feel smart and proper and smiley and religious,’” Grylls says.  “[Faith] is about finding life and joy and peace."
This split between Jesus and religion fascinates me.  In the early 19th century American Christians tended to think of "religion" in terms of "true Religion" (Christianity) and the rest--usually four groups (Muslims, Jews, and Pagans/Heathens).  By the early 20th century "religion" was a category within which Christianity fell alongside another ten to half-dozen religions (suddenly we have Daoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto etc.)  Now, in the early 21st century I hear more and more (usually evangelical) Christians claiming that Jesus wasn't religious at all--in fact true Christianity isn't about religion--it's about a relationship with Jesus.  I'm not spiritual, or religious, I'm with Jesus.
So, this kinder gentler masculine Christianity emphasizes simplicity, a personal realization, and a personal relationship with Jesus.  But at the end of the article, there's one more piece added to the puzzle.  Grylls is a family man.
His family consists of his wife, Shara, who he met while training to climb Mt. Everest, and his three sons, Jesse, Marmaduke and Huckleberry—the last of which was born this past year on their houseboat....Grylls also points to their shared faith as a critical element in their marriage. “We’ve been married almost 10 years, and that’s been a great glue to our family, actually. I look back now and I think it’d be really hard without that faith together—that sustained us.
We've suddenly taken a turn toward a Promise Keepers rally.  This is the final section of the story and, I think, it acts a landing spot for the 20something reader.  Here's where it's all headed--a monogamous marriage with another Christian and a house full of kids with names that are original yet still somewhat suburban in flavor.  A real Christian man is a father, and not in that Hank Hill kind of way, more like that guy you see in the park with the toddler in the hiking backpack eating a Clif Bar (full disclosure: I am that guy in the park).
I've been riffing on various sections of the story because  I do they point to some interesting confluences in today's young Christian circles.  A simple, individualized, family-friendly, good-looking, anti-"religion", Christian-Nature spirituality is quite appealing.  Jim Wallace and Russell Moore point this out in some ways. The Emergent church movement and figures like Rob Bell (who has a video where he's the guy with the hiking backpack) and Don Miller also appeal to this young conservative Christian demographic.  The whole Gryll's article is a stream with flows from Transcendentalism, Evangelicalism, Promise Keepers, muscular Christianity, and Graham's "Make a decision for Christ today" revivalism.  CNN's Belief Blog, however, saw a whole different set of religious ancestors for Grylls in their post about the story:
The Bible is full of prophets having visions while they’re wandering alone in the deserts. John the Baptist didn’t eat yak eyeballs but he did eat locusts. The Prophet Mohammed received his revelation in a mountain cave. The Buddha received enlightenment under a bodhi tree.
As I see it, Gryll's is just another example of confluence or "combinativeness," as Cathy Albanese would put it, in American religion and American Christianity.  This is a confluence that isn't necessarily fully thought out or self-selected.   I don't think Grylls went out and thought about becoming this sort of masculine Christian, nor do I think Relevant sought to portray him this way.  This isn't Sheila-ism.  It's something more organic and more accidental. It's like religious run-off making its way into a creek of spirituality and carrying all sorts of cultural flotsam with it.  What to call it, though? Perhaps Bear-ism?


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