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5-MINUTE READ
Jesus, John Wayne and the church
A best-selling book takes a very uncomfortable look at American evangelical Christianity. Agree or disagree, we should be paying attention.
Jim Killam
September 1, 2021

Any opinions expressed here are mine, and do not necessarily reflect those of First Free Rockford or its leadership.

I didn’t want to read Jesus and John Wayne last year. I knew it might take me to a dark place, and 2020 was already dark enough. Here’s why I chose to read it this summer:

  • The book became a best-seller, read and talked about by Christians and non-Christians alike. When was the last time that happened? When chances are good that I’ll be asked about this book, I’d like to have something to say.
  • Our just-concluded sermon series about fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control — has helped me to consider those nine characteristics and then hold a mirror not only to my own life, but also to American evangelical church culture.
  • People whom I love dearly have no interest in Christianity because of what they perceive among believers: anger, fear, hypocrisy and willful disregard of verifiable truth.
  • Other committed Christians are leaving evangelical churches, or keeping their distance for now, because they say their church has been hijacked by political beliefs and allegiances that look nothing like Jesus.
  • Pastors are leaving their profession in high numbers, profoundly discouraged. High on their list of reasons: An hour or two per week in church can’t compete with the discipling people receive from cable news and social media.

At least a couple of the things I just mentioned probably raised your blood pressure a little. Within our families and our church family, as in almost every family these days, there’s disagreement and tension. Accurate or not, those sentiments undeniably exist, and they are keeping people from Jesus — people I love and people you love. Maybe it’s worth listening to voices trying to sort out what has happened.

Historical research

The author of Jesus and John Wayne, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, is a history professor at Calvin University, which is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. It’s important to know that J&JW is not a memoir; it’s an academically researched thesis by a historian who happens to be a Christian and who knows her subject deeply. The book traces the entanglement of politics, culture and evangelical Christianity over the past century. Du Mez writes with a definite point of view that you or I may not always like. But that doesn’t render her research untrue, or less relevant.

J&JW is not a fun read. Du Mez proceeds through a litany of evangelical strongholds — megachurches, Focus on the Family, the Left Behind books, Promise Keepers, militant masculinity, Christian bookstores, the purity culture, celebrity pastors and yes, John Wayne and his imitators. She doesn’t condemn it all, though it’s possible to read the book that way. She does connect dots to build a case that much of American evangelical culture is far more cultural than Christian. It gets even darker toward the end, as she builds a long list of spiritual and sexual abuses committed by noteworthy evangelical leaders — and in which the victims, mostly women, were often vilified.

Not the whole story

This is not a complete picture of evangelical America, today or ever. An unfamiliar reader would be left with the opinion that evangelical churches are brimming with predators, misogynists and power-hungry jerks. The book doesn’t give much time to millions of transformed lives, gospel mission both local and global … and the much longer list of pastors and leaders who did not abuse their positions but served their congregations faithfully and humbly. (This is why we need to be telling those stories, by the way.)

To be fair, a complete picture is not what the author set out to paint. Historians focus on trends, movements, leaders and watershed moments. They try to learn how we got here from there, and what it means. Taken this way, the book bothers me less because it’s a cautionary tale we can learn from.

Still, J&JW should bother us because the elements of the church presented here don’t look much like Jesus — and it’s obvious to everyone except those caught up in them.

How to respond?

Christians have responded to Jesus and John Wayne in several ways.

  • Ignore the book completely.
  • Dismiss it as an elitist, feminist rant and yet another threat to “our way of life.”
  • “But what about (fill in the blank)?”
  • Agree whole-heartedly as they leave the evangelical world for good.
  • Humbly and honestly check the mirror.

I think that last option is the healthiest, even if it hurts. Even if we need to admit we’ve been wrong about some things. Pastor and professor Sean Michael Lucas writes in Mere Orthodoxy:

“The real question is not whether evangelicals experience an interplay between theology and culture (we all do); rather, it is whether evangelicals are willing to be self-critical enough to recognize that there may be significant cultural blind-spots that are hindering the advancement of the Gospel itself. And what comes clear from Du Mez’s book (and from any given day on social media) is the answer to that question is a resounding, ‘No.’ And that, in the end, is what is profoundly troubling.”

For the sake of the gospel — for the sake of our friends and family members who need Jesus — are we willing to ask ourselves some hard questions?

Jim Killam
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    You took the words right out of my mouth. My husband and I continue to go to church, but we are very disappointed that fellow Christians are so mean-spirited. I thought a lot about the Fruit of the Spirit teachings, and I find it so troubling that much is missing from our Christian community. I will have to read the book, but it sounds like an interesting read.

    Reply
  2. Jim Killam

    Thanks for your thoughts, Linda. No doubt the American evangelical church is in a difficult and painful season. Thankfully, there are also many, many stories of people showing the love of Jesus to their communities and to the world. Those stories give me a lot of hope.

    Reply

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