(This feature originally appeared in The Baptist Times)
A no-nonsense looking guy stands across from me in church. He has a shaved head, wears a ‘wife-beater’ vest and he has tattoos. Not arty tribal tattoos or ‘my birth-sign in Chinese’ tattoos like a fashion designer might have either. Prison tattoos. I’m not sure why he’s at my church – perhaps he’s from the Christian rehab facility we’re linked to, perhaps he’s someone’s son or husband or friend. Whoever he is, though, he does not belong here. At least he doesn’t think so. ‘Uncomfortable’ would be putting it mildly. He wants to hit somebody. I try not to catch his eye. Maybe he’s possessed. Maybe he’s going to rob us.
And then I listen to the words of the worship song we’re singing. ‘I have felt your touch,’ our male worship-leader croons to the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, ‘more intimate than lovers.’ Whether this hard-man is a regular church-goer, familiar with contemporary styles of worship or he has just got out of prison, this has to be the gayest thing he has ever experienced. He’s finding it hard to relate to the lyrics, the high pitch of the singing, the flowers, the whole church experience, and I suddenly realise that so am I. Looking around, other men are feeling the same.
‘The UK church is haemorrhaging men.’ That’s according to Christian Vision for Men (CVM), a Bath-based ministry that helps churches better engage with men both inside and outside their congregations. They say that the proportion of men in British churches is less than 40 percent and that number is declining steeply. CVM predicts that in just over 20 years, just ten percent of people regularly attending UK churches will be men. And why? Because over the last 20 years, ‘Christian churches have tended to do little for their men.’
Special ministries for children, youth, women and ‘seniors’ are a regular part of the life of many fellowships, yet church, according to CVM, seems less relevant to men than ever. From a worship experience focused almost exclusively on ‘expressing feelings’ using ‘very gentle and fluffy words,’ to the attitude of passive submission rather than active, objective, goal-oriented engagement in services and Bible-studies, most men, according to CVM, struggle with church. Having to think of Jesus, a man they haven’t even met, ‘enfolding them in his arms’ may not be the reason men’s numbers in church are dwindling, but it’s probably not helping.
So how should the Church be reaching out and trying to communicate with men? The answer may be in the approach of a book whose cover looks suspiciously like a pint of Guinness, in which most of the action is split evenly between the Bible and a local
pub. The book is The Bloke’s Bible by Dave Hopwood, and with its mix of violence, sex, masculine culture references, comedy and brutal honesty, it may be just what blokes in UK churches have been waiting for.
The Bloke’s Bible is not The Message for manly men, agricultural parables replaced with football stories, but it does involve a retelling of Bible stories. It takes the form of a Narrator sitting in his local pub with a pint of bitter on the table and his battered old Bible in his hand, musing on everything from the attractiveness of the landlord’s daughter and a resentment of yuppies invading his local to how Moses applies to his crisis of confidence or how the parable of Lazarus and Dives can teach him about his finances. It’s poignant, relevant stuff, but more than that: it’s entertaining.
With chapter titles like ‘Talking From Balaam’s Ass’, ‘Enduring Little Children’ and ‘Ezekiel’s Dung’, it’s obvious that Dave is a man for whom comedy is important. Add to that the book’s graphic violence and a very frank attitude to sex, and what you seem to have is a set of Bible-study notes for the FHM generation. But talking to Dave (in his local pub, naturally) I realise his mission is more than just to reach out to men with a masculine Gospel. It’s about being honest.
‘One of my biggest fears is that I’m not actually a bloke,’ he admits. It’s a brave move considering his book’s title. I imagine marketing people tearing their hair out and it pleases me. ‘I’m not particularly into sitting down and watching football matches,’ he continues. ‘But I love Clarkson, Men Behaving Badly, The Young Ones, Alan Partridge – so even if “real blokes” never get into this book, I think there’s guys that will.’
And they should. It’s not just Dave’s film, music and TV references in his titles (a nod to Apocalypse Now in ‘the Horror, the Horror’, for instance), but his cinematic style of writing that makes his book so appealing to read. From King David watching Bathsheba ‘lighting up the night like a goddess’ as she bathes to Ehud watching ‘Eglon’s internal organs spill out all over the floor’ from a stab wound he just inflicted, Dave balances contemplation with big, heaped spoonfuls of movie-style action. And this is not Disney-style action either. While it’s not Last Tango In Paris or Reservoir Dogs, it’s certainly not for kids.
Dave had to censor his original draft of the book. ‘My publishers have been brilliant and have let me get away with so much in a Christian book,’ he says, ‘but there were certain bits we had to chop out. There was certain language that I felt was effective there just to be honest which sadly we had to cut.’ One of the censored scenes is the reinstatement of Peter after his betrayal of Jesus. In the published version, Peter says: ‘Don’t call me Peter. After all the stuff that happened that night…’ In the original version, ‘stuff’ was not there, but a stronger word, less familiar to Christian publishing, was. ‘To him that’s what it is, his life right now,’ says Dave. ‘Some of the mess in our lives is pretty earthy stuff. The Bible itself is pretty earthy if you talk honestly about it.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Bloke’s Bible draws heavily on the Old Testament for its earthiness. ‘I love the Old Testament,’ he says, ‘It doesn’t pull its punches. It’s got the Song of Solomon with all the sex and the celebration of young lovers, and it’s also got genocide. And neither of those gets talked about on a Sunday morning.’
Dave is obviously frustrated by the safeness of much contemporary Christian literature. ‘I wish people were writing in a way that was more honest about sex, using imagery that was more extreme,’ he complains. But he sees at least some value in Christian self-censorship: ‘If there’s nothing that needs to be cut out then I think I’m failing,’ he laughs, ‘because I think I need to be pushing it. Because I think the Bible pushes it.’
But The Bloke’s Bible is not OTT when it comes to the OT, not all eye-for-an-eye theology and war stories. The New Testament gets a significant look in, but if you’re expecting gentle Jesus meek and mild, you might be disappointed. ‘Jesus used a violent story to talk about his own ministry,’ Dave says. ‘[He] talks in a parable about himself, about how they beat him, they murder him and they throw his body out. That’s graphic violence. I want to tap into that for guys.’
Ultimately, though, Dave believes that honesty, not visceral imagery, is the key to reaching out to blokes. ‘Often in Christian settings you open the Bible with people to discuss a passage and they say what they think they’re meant to say. But meanwhile in their head there’s other thoughts and questions.’ It’s these questions about sex and money, about suicide and power, about man’s purpose and how suffering and pain fit into a world created by a loving God (what he calls ‘the things we don’t talk about out loud’) that form the core of Dave’s book, rather than the imagery he uses.
In The Road Trip (essentially Bloke’s Bible II) Dave’s narrator explores those questions again, this time hitting the open road. Think ‘Christianity and the Art of Motorcar Maintenance’ (rather than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), in which the protagonist finds himself in cemeteries and traffic jams, visiting an old friend and encountering an old flame, all the while reflecting on the examples of Cain, Isaac, Elijah and Paul. It promises to be an engaging journey, and according to Dave, the entertainment should be just as intense as Bloke’s Bible I: ‘The Bible has hundreds of gritty, dangerous stories,’ he smiles. ‘I think there are enough for a second book.’
How autobiographical are the close-to-the-bone stories in The Bloke’s Bible and The Road Trip? Dave is cagey about that, avoiding the topic by moving the subject away from himself. He is, after all, still a guy. And while not necessarily comfortable with talking about his own feelings to a total stranger in a pub (at least after only one Guinness), he has advice for those wishing to share their faith with men. ‘Don’t tell people what you think Jesus should mean to them,’ he says. ‘Be honest about what he really means to you. Draw on the moments of doubt and despair. Draw on the moments when you thought he’d come through for you and he didn’t. Those times temper the idealism that is wrapped around Christianity.’
That seems to fit in with what CVM believe too. ‘The biggest favour you can do a man is to encourage him to share transparently,’ CVM’s book, Winning Men advises. ‘Only then will you be able to offer the light of the Gospel.’ Despite the differences between men and women that both Dave and the people at CVM are keen to point out, perhaps a combination of earthy, edgy entertainment and honest, Biblical truth could do us all some good, not just the men. A desire for honesty and authenticity, after all, is hardly exclusive to blokes.