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Real Men Have Broken Hearts

If thousands of Christian men keep their promises, can they change the world?
by Carter Phipps

"Welcome home, men," boomed the speaker on the stage, the warmth of his words magnified by huge video screens that relayed his beaming image to the sea of faces held in rapt attention around the large indoor arena. Thousands of people were staring up at the screens—some standing, some sitting, some crying, some laughing, some swaying to the music that filled the auditorium—all of them touched by a shared communion, all of them brought together by a common aspiration, and every last one of them a man.

It was a warm summer evening in Albany, NY, and Promise Keepers had come to town.

A Christian men's organization founded in 1990 by former Colorado University football coach Bill McCartney, Promise Keepers has become famous over the last decade for its stadium-sized events in which thousands of men come together to give their souls to Jesus and uphold seven "promises," or principles, designed to build a life of personal integrity and faith. The organization itself has had its ups and downs over the years, but tonight in New York the focus was single-minded—to bring the nine thousand gathered men of all ages together in what was billed as "a revolution of a man's soul."

"Jesus loves broken hearts," the speaker continued. "When you have a humble, broken heart, it pleases God." As I walked through the venue and listened to the passions and prayers of the faithful, I took a close look at some of the faces of these thousands of close-quartered men. It wasn't hard to imagine that some of them had been living hard lives. No doubt there were some rough-and-tumble stories in that auditorium—stories of crime, abuse, and shattered homes. But there was nothing downtrodden in their demeanor. In fact, there was a kind of hope in the air—the freshness of possibility and promise, the feeling you get when it seems that the future can be unburdened by the weight of the past. Call it redemption, conversion, liberation, or salvation; attribute it to psychology, spirituality, theology, or the suffering savior on the oversized crucifix at the front of the arena. But it was clear to me in the bright faces and soft eyes of so many I passed by during the course of those few hours that some higher power was indeed reaching into their hearts.

Promise Keepers was primarily formed to save wayward Christian souls, but it was also created to address the growing recognition that in the numerous liberation movements of the twentieth century, somehow men were one group that had been left noticeably unaddressed. In that sizable void had grown the moral fragmentation of the family unit and the decay of inner-city life in America, and the repercussions on our society have been and continue to be profound. So even as Robert Bly and Sam Keen wrote Iron John and Fire in the Belly, attempting to instill some warrior spirit into sensitive New Age guys, Promise Keepers was taking another approach to men's liberation. It set out to inculcate a spiritual maturity in those men whose moral center had been deconstructed by our postmodern culture, putting great emphasis on the cultivation of "personal integrity." Both men's movements have been successful, and both have been controversial. Keen and Bly's vision was often ridiculed in the mainstream press but was seen as relatively harmless. Promise Keepers, on the other hand, has drawn some heavy-hitting critics. Founder Bill McCartney is said to be as far right as right-wing Christians come and has been known to headline anti-abortion crusades at Operation Rescue rallies. Social stances such as this, coupled with Promise Keepers' tendency to promote other arch-conservative political causes, have drawn the ire of organizations like NOW (National Organization for Women), which sometimes pickets their gatherings. In fact, NOW has devoted a whole website to warning of the dangers of "feel-good male supremacy." They see in the Promise Keepers movement not the liberation of men but a desire to return to a patriarchal order of dominant men and submissive women. While much of this criticism and concern is legitimate, the critics may also be missing the point. After all, the main emphasis of Promise Keepers, as far as I could tell, was neither social nor political. It was personal.

"Ever notice how most people keep making the same mistakes over and over? I mean, most of us don't even sin creatively. Even our sin is in a rut." The speaker now was Erwin Raphael McManus, a minister from California whose book Uprising: A Revolution of the Soul was the inspiration for the evening's theme. He spoke a couple of times during the course of what turned out to be a carefully arranged sequence of talks, skits, videos, and music—an impressive multimedia presentation all designed for one purpose: to penetrate to the emotional core of the male psyche and force the male ego to come to its knees before its Maker. In that respect, the evening was, as one speaker put it, "not a Promise Keeper thing. It's a Jesus thing." But Jesus didn't have access to state-of-the-art film studios and electric guitar solos. Promise Keepers does and is not afraid to exploit these recent additions to the Creator's earthly box of potential promotional tools. In this respect, Promise Keepers is a strange mix of the deeply traditional (it was hard to escape the feeling that I was at an updated version of a Pentecostal revival event) and the firmly contemporary (the message was multicultural and nondenominational, the medium was high-tech, and the messengers were all refreshingly undogmatic and down to earth). There were no stodgy creeds or uptight doctrines—just a Christian call for radical, personal, unmediated transformation in the presence of Jesus, who could, we were told, help to create "men of humility" and "men of servitude." There was even a recognition that a conversion experience does not equate to lasting transformation, and that individuals have to play an active, courageous role if they are going to lift themselves out of bondage to their own self-destructive tendencies. "It will all remain an experience, a theory," McManus almost shouted to the audience at one point, "unless you respond."

It was an impressive presentation, whatever your religious inclinations. Yes, many of us would prefer our spiritual transformation to come dosed with social enlightenment, and Promise Keepers may not exactly be leading the way on that front. But sometimes the destructive demands of personal demons have to be exorcised before we can even begin to effectively address the many lingering ills of the larger culture. And there is a certain kind of personal transformation that Promise Keepers understands quite well. "Integrity is formed in the gauntlet of coming to the realization that you are not God," declared McManus toward the end of the evening. That's not something you're likely to hear at the latest enlightenment intensive or self-help workshop. But it is a powerful insight into integrity that may be just what the doctor ordered for many in a society that has grown increasingly unmoored from the religious ethics of traditional culture.

Whatever the case, Promise Keepers is a fascinating mix of working-class Christian ethos and authentic inspirational passion. These men might not be voting on the progressive side of the ballot anytime soon, and it may not be their calling to help heal the many social inequities of our troubled society. But if they keep their promises, to themselves and to their Lord, in the end, we might all be living in a more enlightened world.


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