Monday, March 04, 2013

on Christian mens' retreats

As life in an evangelical subculture goes few things fill Wenatchee The Hatchet with more skepticism and ennui than retreats.  Let's be clear, by "retreat" Wenatchee does not mean a modern military euphemism, known as "tactical repositioning".  That definition of "retreat" was the great battle cry of Cobra Commander and not the meaning to be discussed.

No, we're talking about that other kind of retreat but that other kind of retreat comes in two general sorts.  The first kind is the actual retreat that can be described as a kind of group weekend getaway or vacation.  There's no real goal beyond just hanging out in a neat scenic location and sharing food and conversation and fun activities.  Whatever gets discussed is whatever gets discussed.

Then there's the second kind of retreat.  It's billed as a retreat but would be more accurately described as a training expedition in disguise, a kind of culture warrior boot camp for evangelical but missionally minded types who want to sit through powerful teaching sessions with practical wisdom. This will be content you can find somewhere online or at a local library for free but you're still going to pay for this content anyway.  You're not buying stuff, after all, but an experience. Workbooks will be printed and spiral-bound, then handed out to you when you show up.  Syllabi will be distributed, wisdom will be dispersed, breakout sessions will ensure that you keep talking about how relevant and powerful the teaching was for you, you specifically. 

And what will the focus of such retreat teaching tend to be?  We don't really have to discuss that at great length now, do we? If you've been to two or three of them you can make a few worthy guesses.  Men get to hear other men about how to be men.  The agendas may or may not coincide with any actual concerns you have.  One retreat might involve lectures on the value of reverse engineering your life as a concept but even as a concept the very premise is reductive and silly.  You can plan, but as some guy named James put it in some epistle that some people wish wasn't in the canon, talk about what you do tomorrow is tempered by the uncertainty of whether you will live tomorrow. 

Now if you go through the retreat like a good soldier you may be sure it helped you just because you've already spent your time and money. If you consider saying at some point that the whole thing comes off, at the end of it all, like a weekend-devouring waste of time and money (in which men are shoe-horned in discussing what keynote speakers think is important about being men) ... well, you may not win friends and influence people. It's fine to go to these sorts of retreats if you really, really, really want to.  

The mundane and disappointing paradox about Christian mens' retreats is how much work they are.  You come to the end of a weekend-long Christian mens' retreat and what did you do? You spent your money and your weekend to get lectured by guys for hours about stuff that may have no relevance to your life. Then you spent more hours scribbling in a workbook, had a few sing-alongs, and voluntarily subjected yourself to cafeteria food for a weekend... and that's a retreat? 

At a retreat where there's no spiral bound workbooks and syllabi guys can get together and have conversations about, oh, what dietary and nutritional concerns dads may have about their kids at various stages in life.  There might be some lively conversations about whether or not modern food is as good or bad as some think it is.  Who can name a mens' retreat in which the topic of family nutrition even came up, let alone when it came up as a subject in a neo-Calvinist mens' retreat?  That might just be women's stuff.  But guess who may pay for a lot of that food that the kids will be eating?  Take a few guesses and you've got at least one in two odds of guessing that a dad can, should, and will care what his kids can and can't eat. 

In other words, at a retreat where there's no agenda shoehorning men into talking about what the retreat planners want them to talk about men will still, somehow, manage to talk about the things that really matter to them.  Men don't stop wondering how to love their neighbors better (if that's really a goal they have) just because they aren't working from a spiralbound notebook with bullet points from a series of lectures.  Left to their own devices men at various stages in life will pretty naturally find ways to discuss the concerns of their actual lives and topics of concern with and for men in other stages in life.  A retreat can be a paradoxically artificial way of failing to get men walking various paths to share their lives with each other because that spiralbound workbook has already set the agenda and if your concerns don't somehow connect to whatever that set of topics is then, well, fake it til you make it to the end of the weekend you paid for to go through a workbook. 

Now if you love going to those Christian culture-warrior boot-camp retreats and are willing to part with your money and weekends to be part of that, knock yourself out and have fun.  Not even celebrity Christian bloggers will be likely to lament the crisis of mens' retreat Christians. There's no crisis and there won't be, but there may be more fruitful ways to spend your weekends.  :) 


Anonymous said...

Good Stuff WTH, I remember one of those Ad - errr...."retreats" when everyone was giddy because we ate food off of a table with our hands. As if we had been captives to the constraining world of utensils and flatware and finally were able to break free from their bondage.

My big question about these has always been: Every time I hear about how "awesome" it is to be at these retreats; to not shave, eat meat and carbs, be "manly men in the woods", etc etc. I think - Does that mean the other 362 days of the year all of these guys are bottled up and living against their natural disposition?

Emily said...

I would love to host a REAL MEN retreat Mark Driscoll style and then pull a switch at the last minute and have all the speakers and teachers be women. Ha!