Strong faith and washboard abs

There have been many epic battles over religious dogma. The size of Jesus' biceps isn't one of them. But to late-19th-century Protestant leaders concerned with the feminization of Christianity, the Master's - and his followers' - brawn became a leading religious concern. "Muscular Christianity," by Clifford Putney, explores the emergence of this trend in America from 1880 to 1920.

Though basketball and barbells never supplanted baptism as the route to salvation, muscular Christians - exemplified by President Teddy Roosevelt and his "strenuous life" - preached the virtues that became the YMCA trinity: body, mind, and spirit.

What began as a method to fill the pews with men blossomed into a cultural and religious force that helped foster Christian brotherhoods, the Social Gospel, and even college athletics.

Putney, a history professor at Bentley College, narrates these developments with thorough, if sometimes stifling, scholarly context.

To the muscular Christians, the effete and materialistic Victorian-era emasculated Jesus, his teachings, and his present-day ministers. A group of hardy reformers, led by Thomas Hughes, urged followers of the "manly man" from Galilee to render their bodies fit for service.

In forwarding a "body-as-temple" theology, muscular Christians gave a healthy impulse to exercise. But at a deeper level, their focus on physique urged everyday churchgoers to reconsider the obligations of living an active life of Christian service.

At its worst, Putney claims, muscular Christianity engendered chauvinistic, eugenic, and jingoistic tendencies. But by encouraging the YMCA, Boy Scouts, summer camps, and missionary work, muscular Christianity also imparted a much-needed boost of grit to fin de siƩcle America.

Working through Putney's prose can be a long, sober exercise, but there are occasional moments of wit: "Not all reformers pursued biblical revisionism to the point of confusing Jesus Christ with Peter Pan." Pithy questions and concise summaries also lighten the dense chapters.

Unfortunately, he fails to investigate the connection between muscular Christianity and the era's scientific preoccupations. And his superficial treatment of Christian Science - recycling old stereotypes as facts - suggests a lack of depth on subjects outside his focus.

Still, by sorting through the lessons that Protestants learned, trying to energize their religion, "Muscular Christianity" makes an interesting contribution to religious history.

Joshua S. Burek is on the Monitor staff.

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