Goodreads Review of Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes DuMez

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a NationJesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn’t originally give this book a rating when I marked it “read.” That’s largely because I felt pretty ambivalent about it — things about it drew me towards a high ranking, like 4 or 5-stars; but other things I found more dissatisfactory or more mediocre.

However, given the popularity and influence of this book, I had several folks ask me for my thoughts. So I guess I’ll oblige. And I’ll give the book a balanced 3-starts, which Goodreads describes as “I liked it” [good, above average], to express my general appreciation of the book, its argument, and form, while also taking into consideration my quibbles and hesitancies.

One note: I listened to this book as an audiobook, which always creates a different experience (at least for me) than a more careful read. I’m a visual learner. So when I listen to books I expect I inevitably overlook or don’t absorb some of its details, but nonetheless gain an overall impression of the book. But anyway, that means you should take any critique or quibbles below with a certain grain of salt in case the fault, in this case, lies with the reader (me) and not the book/author.

But allow me to list out some of the thoughts I have in terms of assessment:

(1) I very much agree with and appreciate the overall message of the book. I personally grew up in the orbit of the evangelical world Du Mez is describing. So I know the truth of her thesis not just academically, but also on a personal level from my own experience. I don’t think she uses the term “toxic masculinity.” But (defined in the best possible way) I think this term fits what she’s describing. Her point is that much of evangelicalism is fraught with such a view of masculinity. And that’s very, very true, in my opinion. No push back there.

(2) That said, there were points in her book where she went down trails that did not (to me) seem entirely to support her thesis. In other words, at other times, Du Mez would outline some historical account, that in my opinion, did not seem to have a whole lot to do with views of masculinity, although she would seek to draw that connection. I was left less than fully convinced. She may have been describing some historical account exposing an evangelical blemish (which was normally still insightful in itself). But at times it felt reductionistic to explain so much always in terms of an unhealthy approach to masculinity.

So in short, I agree with the thesis, although I might not agree with the extent or every instance of her application.

(3) Her last two chapters were brutal to read. Not that this was any fault of De Mez, but because they outline things that are incredibly disturbing. It was difficult for me emotionally. Hardly any of it, if any of it at all, was new to me. This stuff is recent and in memory. But to read all of it in short order, outlined as it was, was like reliving trauma for those of us who carry the scars of these last years and the battles some of us have been fighting for in evangelicalism. It was hard to relive all that.

(4) Finally, I couldn’t help but feel that the depiction of certain more theologically conservative beliefs (e.g., complementarian convictions) were cast in as negative in principle, yet presented in the form of more objective, disinterested historical writing — not just the clearly unhealthy expressions of said beliefs, but even the beliefs themselves. Maybe this is just my impression from the audio version I listened to. But that was indeed the impression I had, based on the ways such views were cast by the author and certain ideological assumptions that seemed to operate under the surface.

In closing, this book is worth reading. There’s much to be learned. Even if you are already convinced that evangelicalism is fraught with unhealthy expressions and views of masculinity, you will still learn much about its historical manifestations and pedigree that have brought us to where we are today. Also, much of this discussion on masculinity intersects with the history of evangelicalism’s political activity, which has not always been the healthiest either in my opinion (cf. especially the last handful of years). So there are definitely lessons for us to learn, and Du Mez does us a service bringing these to our attention, if we would be so willing to listen.