The Advent of Iron John: Frank Knol urges Willowhaven church to focus on a ministry to men

Pastor Buntz was out of town—strategically, Mona Lefers thought—at a seminar on relationships held, of all places, in Las Vegas. Diane Kramer (the "other woman," as Butch Vermulm liked to call her) had season tickets to the symphony, so she was absent too. Grady Fisher had tried, but failed, to get out of his daughter's Girl Scout banquet.

So that left half a steering committee and no quorum: Mona, owner/ operator of a highly successful bridal shop in Calumet Mall; Butch, a self-made man, a plumber with a fleet of six Roto-Rooter trucks; and Alan Simpson, a painfully quiet mortician who Butch secretly considered just as short on sheer guts as he was long—a block long—on sweetness.

Maybe things would have been different if the steering committee had been operating at full-strength. Then again, maybe not.

When Frank Knol came in, he shook hands warmly all around—too warmly, Butch thought, since the only men he knew who pumped with two hands were truck salesman and county commissioners. Frank was wearing what Mona thought of as the painted smile of a circus clown.

"Folks," he said, "I'm here to say that I've been to the mountain."

Butch thought that was great. "How's skiing?" he said.

Frank shook it off with a smile. "That's not what I mean." He gave Butch a consoling nod. "I have a dream."

Frank Knol came to them on recommendation of Pastor Buntz, who had passed Knol's proposal along to this group that he referred to as his steering committee, a hybrid group of church loyalists Buntz specifically created to supervise what he called, quoting George Bush, "the vision thing." It was an idea he had picked up during a weekend in Cleveland, where he'd scouted a blossoming mega-church.

"What I mean is," Frank told the three steering committee members, "I've seen the future, and it is us."

Mona Lefers folded her arms over her chest. She'd already caught wind that Frank had been out in the woods beating his chest, bonding with other males.

"Now you know that I've always supported a progressive agenda with respect to women's issues at Willowhaven," Frank said, deferring to Mona specifically "and I don't want you to misconstrue the direction of my remarks."

Butch stared blankly. Alan, who sat alone in the love seat, hid behind his coffee.

"This has nothing to do with women," Knol said, sitting back and adjusting his shoulders, now that his politics were a matter of public record. "It is a fact," he maintained, "that the church today—in many places—is proportionally heavy with women."

Butch didn't know what that meant, but he assumed his wife would have thought it shouldn't be said in public.

"Now gentleman—and lady" he nodded to Mona, "what I see coming is a church like the former Soviet Union's— nothing but old women—and I don't have to speak about the repercussions of such a thing on society." He looked around seriously, gathering steam. "What I'm saying is the church has to make drastic moves in perilous times, and, Lord help us, we're in perilous times."

"The recession," Butch added.

"No, Butch," Frank said, "worse—loss of men."

"Loss of men?" Butch said. He was trying hard to line all this up with a weekend ski trip.

"That's right—you see it everywhere."

"You do?" Butch said.

"Everywhere—take a good look at mainline Protestant Christendom." Frank sat forward on the soft chair and used both his hands like paper cutters. "I want you to try to see it this way. A man goes into a dangerous forest and sees a pond. A hand comes up suddenly out of the water and grabs the man's dog."

It's a horror movie, Butch thought. The guy's seen one of those horror movies.

"So he goes back to the castle," Frank said, "and rounds up some men who empty the pond for him. And down there at the bottom, they find a hairy man—a man named Iron John."

Mona moaned audibly.

"See, we've buried this hairy man— all of us have."

'And you think we ought to unleash the beast," Mona said, vigorously.

"It's not a beast," Frank said. "That's where you women are all wrong."

Butch's mind scrambled—economic depression, a hairy man, a beast in a castle, dead dogs, and a trip to the mountains.

"We need a place where men can be men," Frank said, still up on the edge.of his chair. "We need a place where men can help each other find Iron John."

Iron John—Butch though. Sure, potbellied guy. Pitched for Westminster Presbyterian. Mean riser. An old guy.

Alan Simpson ran his fingers along the edge of his generous bangs and coughed lightly into a soft fist.

"So what's the point?" Mona said.

James C. Schaap is a professor of English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.

"The point is that if we're running a reforming church here we've got to respond to the spirit of the times," Frank said. 'And we're talking here about the loss of manhood."

Butch broke into a full blush.

"I think we here at Willowhaven ought to dream," Frank said. "I mean, are we so caught up in tradition that we can't change?"

"What, pray tell, is the dream?" Mona said, pulling her coat up around her shoulders.

"I didn't assume you'd like it," Frank told her. "But I want you to remember how we supported you."

"Me?" Mona said.

"Women," Frank hissed, but it seemed he'd somehow tooled himself to avoid confrontation because the moment he'd spit it out, he shifted easily. "I propose we turn the youth room into a place for men—open every night. Put a neon sign out by the basement door. A couple of tables. Short beer and wine list.

"A bar?" Mona said.

"A man wants to go to a place where everybody knows his name," Frank said.

"Cheersl" Butch said.

"Yes, Cheers," Frank said. "A men's place."

Nausea inched up the back of Mona's throat. "You know, there are women in Cheers," she said.

"But they work there—think once," Frank said. "What I'm saying is that in churches today—and Willowhaven is no exception—there's no place for Iron John."

"I thought he went to Westminster Pres," Butch said. "He used to—didn't he?"

Frank stopped, shocked. "You mean they beat us to it?"

Mona reached over and grabbed Butch's wrist. "He's talking about the hairy man," she told him.

"The hairy man, eh?" Butch's eyebrows furrowed. "In church? We got to have a place for a hairy man, is that it? Is that what I'm hearing here?" He wasn't angry yet, but he was well on his way to being annoyed. "We ought to have a bar down here for this hairy man—is that it, Frank? Is that what you got in mind?"

"Robert Bly says that for too long men have learned about being masculine from their mothers—"

"Where does Bly preach?" Butch said.

"He's not a preacher," Frank said.

"He's a prophet."

The only prophet Butch knew was Billy Graham.

"He says we have to go down into that dangerous water and bring up what we've lost—we've got to rescue Iron John," Frank said.

"The hairy man," Mona corrected.

"Someone please tell me—who's the hairy man?" Butch said.

Frank threw up his hands. "He's locked up in the castle now, and the Queen's got the key."

"Where's this castle?" Butch said. 'And what on earth does this have to do with Cheers?"

"Doesn't anyone understand?" Frank screamed. He tried, quickly, to calm himself. "The water is feminine, see, Butch?—and we have to go through the feminine to the Iron Man."

"Is this a war?" Butch said. "Are we talking war here?"

Mona put her hands up over her face.

"No!" Frank screamed, and Alan winced. "It's the feminine in «s!" he said, "not them," pointing to Mona. "The woman in you," he said, turning his finger toward Butch.

"You're saying I got a woman in me?" Butch said.

Frank stopped and sat back. He looked around—first at Alan Simpson, then at Butch, then threw a token glance at Mona, whose eyes were firmly placed on the ceiling lights. "Doesn't anyone here understand? We're talking major anthropological movements, and the church is—as always—" he stared at Butch, "neanderthal."

Mona kept her lips sealed to avoid emitting steam. Alan Simpson was petrified, and Butch just shook his head.

"I've had it with the church," Frank said. "Ten years I've come to Willowhaven, but no one ever listened to my opinions. The place is medieval," he said. "I'm serious." He slammed his fist on the cushion. "If the church doesn't get the men, it'll be the end of civilization as we know it!"

"This Bly" Butch said, "what is he? He a Baptist?"

Frank's eyes fell. He pulled a hand up to his face, then stood, buttoned his coat with one hand and straightened his tie. "Listen," he said. "You're supposed to be long-range here, aren't you? This is the planning body of this church, and I'm offering you this idea. Turn this youth room into a place for men. What better place for men than a church?— that's what I'm saying. Let them come down here and find what it is they're missing—"

"How is it I got a woman in me?" Butch said.

Frank never skipped a beat. "What I'm saying is, take the lead here for once. Let's be a church and minister to men." He stared at Alan. "I got a vision here of the church that takes hold of culture with a vengeance in its teeth—"

"That's it," Butch said. "We lost this dog somewhere in the woods. I got that part."

Frank Knol closed his eyes, suffering visibly, took a series of heavy breaths drawn deeply and with great difficulty from the pit of his soul. "Butch," he said, "it's a bloody thing for each of us to have to reach into that pond and find Iron John." He rolled up a fist. "But it's got to be done, and we can do it. We can take it!" he said.

Butch grinned. "You're talking soft-ball, aren't you?" Butch said. "I'm tired of it too— Willowhaven always gets pounded in that church league. I'm tired of it too."

That was it for Frank Knol. He stared, silently, at the ceiling, as if pleading for patience, then he raised his hands. "I'm leaving," he said, relatively composed. "I can't even talk to you. I'm taking my membership elsewhere." Without looking at any of them, he lifted his chin proudly and made an exit from the den of lions who hadn't so much as laid a paw on him.

Willowhaven, that night, lost a ten-year member.

Once Frank was out of the youth room, Mona exhaled so deeply that the picture of the missionary family on the bulletin board across the room trembled visibly on its single tack.

"Did you understand any of that?" Butch asked her. "I didn't catch a word." He shook his head as if clearing his vision. "What I want to know is—where on earth did that guy go skiing?"

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.