Courtesy (Chivalric Virtues series)

This is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the introduction to the series, go here.


Courtesy is pretty well universally recognised as an admirable quality, but a lot of the time we are left with some kind of idea that it’s weak.

We have an idea that it’s somehow unmanly, or a sign of weakness, or an invitation to be taken advantage of. At best, it’s a kind of “good but prissy” virtue associated with daintiness and knowing which fork to use rather than anything resembling strength.

And yet it’s one of the chivalric virtues, almost universally acknowledged as such even in the Middle Ages when chivalry was a warrior code first and foremost. Let’s see if we can strip away the prissiness and reveal the strong heart of this excellent virtue.

It’s also something that Christians aren’t always very good at. We often get the idea that “standing for truth” means that we can overlook courtesy. After all, isn’t the Truth more important than someone’s hurt feelings?

Not to the Mediæval way of thinking. The beauty of the code of chivalry was that it combined the greatest acts of bravery and self-sacrifice with the least deeds of politeness and respect, unifying both in a single whole. To this code of honour, being courteous is not less important than speaking the truth; it is the same. Biblically, we are instructed to “speak the truth in love”; the “in love” part is neither more nor less important than the “speaking the truth” part. It is not loving to fail to speak the truth, nor is it truthful to neglect the love of Christ which ought to be what compels us to speak in the first place.

In the knight Roland‘s chivalric vows, the vows to “always respect the honour of women”, to “guard the honour of fellow knights” and to “refrain from the wanton giving of offence” speak to the idea of courtesy. It’s this last that we as Christians seem to fall down on most readily. Don’t go out of your way to be offensive.

This is not to say that we need to deny the truth or fail to address issues of righteousness. But you know as well as I do when something is likely to offend, and chances are that either there’s a better way of saying it or it doesn’t need to be said at all.

People are offendable enough by the Cross anyway without us going out of our way to ram unpalatable “truths” down their throats.

And yes, there may be times when the most loving thing to do is to break the bounds of what would normally be considered courteous and call someone out on their crap. But if you’re finding that these times come along every time it’s day, you may be missing the point.

Courtesy also includes “guarding the honour of fellow knights”. Assuming the best of others, even if they are opponents or rivals. I have Christian friends whose Facebook pages are an almost unbroken stream of attacks against this person or that person for “heresy” or “worldliness” or whatever. You may find aspects of their teaching to be erroneous or unhelpful, but these are, metaphorically speaking, fellow knights. “Heresy” is a big and very loaded charge; the theological debating equivalent of nuclear weapons. There are times when it’s called for, but just because someone disagrees with you on the finer points of how to apply a particular Scripture does not make them a heretic.

Courtesy. Showing our fellows the benefit of the doubt. Not going out of our way to make uncalled-for personal attacks.

It’s interesting that this is part of a warrior code. As much as I generally disagree with the NRA in most circumstances, they may have a point when they talk about an armed society being a polite society. As usual, though, I think they may have it backwards. There’s very little intrinsic to the carrying of weapons that makes people act courteously. An armed society needs to be a polite society, because of the intrinsic danger in offending an armed person.

Collectively speaking, they’re right in the long term, because those who aren’t polite will get eliminated from an armed society. But it’s not an automatic thing; courtesy must be trained. It’s a virtue; if it were automatic to the possession of arms, we would not characterise it as such. Anyone could access virtue merely by picking up a gun, and there have been enough criminal acts committed using weapons that we know this to be untrue.

Still, for the trained man (for such were the knights), there may conceivably be something about strapping on that weapon that reinforces the seriousness of what you are about. This is not a situation for easy offendedness, nor is it a situation in which you can give offence with impunity. I can’t speak experientially to whether this is the case or no, but it is conceivable.

Attaining the virtue of courtesy does not mean that we bend over backwards to remove everything that might possibly cause offence and tie ourselves in knots to please our fellow man, but at the same time we don’t go out of our way to be offensive and then cry persecution when people get upset. Courtesy is a virtue, yes, but it is one among seven, and the true path of chivalry lies in mastering them all. Faith-integrity will not allow us to become chamæleonic using the excuse of “being courteous”. But courtesy remains one of the virtues, and we may not overstep it either.

In my planetary symbolic scheme, courtesy is associated with Mercury. Mythologically, Mercury was the messenger; the creator of words and lord of language. The proper use of language naturally falls in that sphere, and though language alone does not constitute courtesy, it plays a large part.

In modern cosmology, Mercury is the smallest planet, and courtesy may be something like the least virtue, with others like courage and faith seeming to play a more substantial part. Yet the virtue of Mercury, too, is important, particularly as Christians. Are we not messengers ourselves?

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A blog I read recently posted an article on manhood from a Christian perspective. While the article was good overall, there was one thing said that made me stop and raise a quizzical eyebrow.

In a list of ways to be a man (I forget the exact wording, but that was essentially the meaning), top of the list was

“It means being a leader, not a follower…put away passivity!

Huh?

How does leadership get to be an integral part of manhood, let alone the most important thing that gets listed first?

This blog is far from the only example of this assumption, either. Virtually anything you read on manhood, from a Christian perspective or otherwise, seems to assume that part of manhood is leadership.

The implications are twofold:

1. Women can’t be leaders. Leadership is part of masculinity, therefore it’s reserved for males. If you’re a leader, you’re automatically a man.  Women are followers only.  (In fact, the blog post makes that explict: “Don’t act like a woman.  Lead, don’t follow”).

2. Unless you’re a leader, you’re less than a man. You can’t be a real man unless you have followers.

The first is tied in to the complementarian position regarding men and women, and I don’t really want to go into the whole complementarian vs egalitarian debate here (though it’s an important subject. Suffice it to say I personally think the complementarian case is pretty thin).

But that second implication (well, or the first)… Wow. Is that what we really think?

There are only so many positions of leadership available, and not every man can fill one. Some men categorically shouldn’t fill leadership positions, and not only because of character issues. Some men just don’t have that giftedness, and that’s ok.

Very little is worse than an ungifted leader in a position of responsibility; they tend towards protection of their position and either domination or being driven solely by public opinion.

The Bible calls leadership a spiritual gift (Rom 12:8). The implications of this are that not everyone has it. Some people are followers.

This is ok. Even Jesus was a follower of His Father; He only did what He saw the Father doing.

I worry that our conflation of manhood and leadership is creating unrealistic expectations. If I, as a man, am a Leader by virtue of being a man, then I am led to expect positional authority. When I don’t have it in defined terms (through a job or a church board slot or whatever), I’ll manufacture it in my relationships – I’ll become a tyrant to my kids or a domineering patriarch to my wife.

And what about those who aren’t in positions of authority? The implication is that unless you can positionally rise to the top, you’re less of a man.

Excuse me? What happened to humility? What does being a Christian man have to do with running the rat race or climbing the social ladder?

It’s all very flattering to the ego for a man to be told that God Made You A Leader, but since when was God in the business of flattering our egoes? I worry that it’s just pandering to our pride and actually counter to the character of Jesus.

Jesus didn’t rise to the top. He wasn’t given a position of leadership in the society of his day. He never had a position of power either in the synagogue or in the empire. On the contrary, He humbled Himself. He left His position of authority and leadership in heaven and took the nature of a servant. And He was the perfect man and the model for our lives.

By these lights, being a man seems less about being a leader and more about following someone who is worthy to be followed.

After all, Jesus said “Follow Me”, not “lead for Me”.

A Clash of Patriotisms

(Source:Wikipedia)

I think maybe this year I’m actually mentally ready for the Fourth of July.

I can never quite tell until the day itself, of course. There have been other years during the almost 9 years I’ve lived in the States when I’ve thought I was prepared and then found myself getting uncomfortable. This year, perhaps it’ll be different.

The Fourth of July isn’t Independence Day for me so much as Day of Feeling Weird About My Country.

It’s not anything anyone does, or says, really. Some of my friends will make jokes about it, but if the situations were reversed I’d almost certainly do the same. Some good-natured teasing isn’t going to kill me or harm my country.

No, my problems are almost entirely internal. It’s that it’s a very weird and slightly uncomfortable thing to be a Brit in America on Independence Day.

The American Revolution never even registered on the history I learned at school, but pure mental self-defence has meant that I’ve had to learn about it since coming to the US.

The Revolutionary War looms large in American popular culture. There’s probably no comparable historical event in British popular culture that everyone will immediately gravitate to (World War Two and the Battle of Britain, perhaps, but not even that has the same overwhelming prominence in British national sentiment). What this means is that the war is part of American founding mythology (not in the sense of “untrue” but in the sense of “powerful story”) and consequently is surrounded by a lot of populism, half-remembered facts and lazy thinking.

Being a Brit, and a Brit with some knowledge of my country’s history, I hear some of the American assumed knowledge about the War of Independence and I question. It doesn’t seem to add up.

To give you some examples:

“British tyranny” said like it’s a universally-acknowledged fact. I know what you’ve been told, but it’s difficult to see my country as a tyranny in that period when we have pre-revolutionary France to compare it with.

George III. I’m probably the only one who can still remember the 10-second scene in The Patriot, close to the beginning of the film, in which you see the colonials burning an effigy of King George III. A blink-and-you’d-miss-it moment entirely incidental to the plot, but I can still remember my visceral shock and distaste. That’s my king you’re burning in effigy. I guess this is the reaction of most good Americans to seeing someone burn the Stars and Stripes.

Yes, monarchism really does run that deep in me. And George III is far from the worst king we’ve ever saddled ourselves with. I’d accept the “tyrant” label for a number of others, including Henry VIII, but George III looks more like Good King George than the monster of American myth, even stacked up against some of his contemporaries (Robespierre and the last of the Louises of France show us the true face of tyranny).

My country, the Bad Guys. Ahem. From the perspective of British history, 1776 is a lot closer to 2014 than it is to 1066, and that’s discounting everything prior to William the Conqueror. We could just as easily go back to Julius Caesar’s landing in 50BC as “the start of British history”. By 1776, just about every national institution of government was in place, and in a recogniseably modern form. You don’t think we’re evil bad guys now (Hollywood aside. To them, the English are the only nationality it’s permissible to hate). What changed?

“We Put An End To The British Empire”. This is just lazy thinking. Actually, most of what became the British Empire wasn’t annexed until after the loss of the Thirteen Colonies, and some have seen their loss as providing some of the impetus behind the rise of empire. America didn’t put an end to the Empire. We did that ourselves after World War Two.

Hey, I can’t even hear the US National Anthem without being aware that the “rockets’ red glare” illuminating the Flag came from unguided missiles fired from one of my country’s warships.

Suffice it to say, even without anyone saying anything, it makes the Fourth of July rather interesting inside my head.

I love my country, and I love America too. Most of the time these two loves coexist peacefully, if not in active cooperation. We are, after all, staunch allies, having a close partnership that Britain calls “the Special Relationship”.

And yet at least once a year I’m reminded that we were once enemies.

In purely historical terms, from the American perspective I can understand how George III looks bad. Britain in her imperial days seemed at times to have a peculiar genius for selecting precisely the worst possible people to be colonial administrators, and this was often the case in the American colonies. When all you know about the King is the manner of people he selects as his representatives, well… The rest is history.

Similarly, compared to the situation in France, or even mainland Britain, the American colonials had it pretty good, with an abundance of freedom and relatively low tax burden. But they weren’t comparing their situation with France or the motherland, they were comparing it with the distracted days of the wars with France, during which time the British government didn’t much care what the Americans did as long as they flew a British flag and not a French one. In those days, laws were winked at as often as not, and it’s all too easy to see their subsequent actual enforcement as a crackdown.

I get this intellectually, but it hasn’t helped so far with my emotional reactions to the Fourth of July.

This year may be different. I may yet forgive the city of Boston for its criminal waste of perfectly good tea and come to a place of peace. But when so much of American popular patriotism references the Revolutionary War, it’s difficult to put down my crown loyalist defensiveness and enter in.

Faith (Chivalric Virtues series)

This is one of a series of posts on the chivalric virtues.  I am identifying seven chivalric virtues as detailed in this introduction.


I was initially intending to talk about courage as the first virtue in this series. It’s how I numbered them when I was originally coming up with the list. However, I’m feeling particularly uninspired to talk about courage right now, so I’m choosing to focus this time on faith.

There’s some justification for doing so. After I published the introduction and its list of seven chivalric virtues, I realised that if I combined mercy and justice (something that many will probably think is weird, but I have my reasons) and separated Humility and Fealty, then I could indeed tie them to the seven Mediæval planets as an interesting and altogether quite apt secondary symbolic system. Faith would, under this schema, be associated with Luna, which is the first of the Planets in ascending order. It makes a certain amount of sense.  The list of virtues is thus:

  1. Faith (Luna)
  2. Courtesy (Mercury)
  3. Mercy (Venus)
  4. Largesse (Sol)
  5. Courage (Mars)
  6. Fealty (Jupiter)
  7. Humility (Saturn)

Faith in its Mediæval sense is a considerably broader and (I would argue) deeper concept than our modern usage would suggest. In our regular usage, the primary meaning of faith is religious feeling or belief. We talk about our Christian faith, and about other faiths.

Our secondary meaning is closer to the Mediæval sense, but still lacks some of the full meaning of the term. We tell each other to “have faith” in a time of crisis – to keep on believing that God is good and that He will come through for us.

It’s still all about belief, though.

Faith in the Mediæval sense is less about a mere “belief” (like belief in ghosts or ufos) and far more about trust.

The knight Roland‘s chivalric vows included vows “to keep faith” and “always to tell the truth”, which are far more about one’s character than one’s beliefs. Allied far more to the Biblical idea of faithfulness, faith is perhaps best thought of as integrity and its outworking. Keeping our word. Being holy, because of Whose we are. Actively trusting God even in the face of circumstances. This is no mere “belief”. It’s a solid trust that God is who He says He is.

In the Bible, faith and faithfulness are often the same word. If you have faith, in this sense, you will be faithful. Integrity stems from trust in God and produces trustworthiness. The inside matches the outside, and both match Reality.

But why tie this to the Moon?

In Mediæval thought, the Moon was on the boundary, both subject to change (like the human realm) and constant (like the heavens). Above the Moon, one was in the heavenly places, where God’s will is done perfectly as we are told to pray it will be here on earth. Below the Moon, there is doubt and uncertainty, things are not what they seem and God’s good laws can have disastrous effects on our fallen natures. Above the Moon, there is certainty and full knowledge, even as we are fully known. The Moon, in Mediæval cosmology, was the boundary.

Thus, Luna embodies the idea of faith. Here below the Moon, we may not know, we cannot tell. All we can do is trust. Here below the Moon, there is uncertainty and things are not as they appear, but as citizens of a heavenly Kingdom it behooves us to live with the integrity of the upper realm.

The Moon was said to produce wanderings, not only physical travel but in the wits. The word is “lunacy” for a reason: it was thought to be the result of Lunar influence. Spiritually, this reminds us that we live beneath the Moon as “aliens and strangers in the world”, and that faith can sometimes look like madness. This world is not our permanent home. We’re on a journey, wandering beneath the moon, though as Tolkien reminded us, “not all those who wander are lost”.

Here below, faith looks like lunacy. Not only trust in God but trustworthiness and integrity are sometimes considered ridiculous. (Can you be a successful salesperson or politician and tell the truth at all times? If not, why not?) Faith (not only trust in God but also integrity) requires us to live as citizens of a Heavenly Kingdom.  If the outside lived in this world matches the inside transformed into the image of God, then certainly we are going to look strange. We cannot but help look like lunatics if we are going to be true to ourselves as a new creation in Christ.

An episode in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair brings out what I mean. The two children, the newly-rescued Prince Rilian plus the gloomy but fundamentally honest Marsh-wiggle Puddleglum have been captured by an evil witch in Underland who is trying to lay them under an enchantment. Her siren-song causes them to forget their quest, forget Narnia, forget even Aslan Himself. But all of a sudden Puddleglum speaks up:

“You may be right. Your world may be the only world there is. But it’s a pretty poor world. WE may be just four babies playing a game, but four babies can create a play-world that licks the real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to live as much like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.”

He has kept faith. He’s true to the real Narnia even in the face of his own doubts of its existence. He speaks and acts with integrity and truth.

This is what faith is. Not “believing something you know isn’t true”. Not some mystical energy that causes God to do what we want, but being true to what is Really Real.

The Chivalric Virtues (series introduction)

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I have a deep-seated love of the ideals of knighthood. Elsewhere I’ve half-jokingly said that I have the soul of a Mediæval knight trapped in the body of a 21st-Century nerd.

I like the idea of chivalry, in its full original sense combining valour and courtesy in a single system. My concept of manhood is largely tied to the knightly ideal.

It occurred to me that I might have a look at the chivalric virtues and how we might apply them today, in the post-modern world of cynicism and mistrust.

Why do this? Isn’t the whole idea of chivalry rather sexist? Not to mention antithetical to the ideals of democracy and capitalism. Why waste time on such a Quixotic project?

I’ll admit that this is largely for my own benefit. In choosing to cleave to the ideals of knighthood, it behooves me to have a clear sense of what I’m aiming at. But I have had vague thoughts for a while now on the notion of seeing if I could work out some kind of teaching for children, and probably in particular boys, based on the chivalric virtues. Tilting at windmills is not part of the plan.

The allegation of sexism is more serious. I’d argue that it’s applicable to the debased form of patronising courtesty that the word “chivalry” has come to mean rather than what I have in mind. I’d have no problem with the idea of a woman choosing to live by this sort of code without sacrificing her femininity. The Middle Ages even had a term for such a one, coming to the age from the Vikings: the “shield-maiden“. Arwen Evenstar in Lord of the Rings, or Guinevere riding out with spear and shield to rescue the young Arthur is a good example of the type: not an Amazon (in Greek, literally “without breasts”) – a woman who sacrifices femininity for valour – nor a damsel in distress, but balancing femininity with chivalric honour.

I’d argue that our ideas of “strong” and “weak” have changed enough that women are no longer automatically to be viewed as “weak” and in need of a (male) rescuer.

Firstly though, of course, we need to define which virtues we mean. At this temporal distance, it’s hard to tell whether something is authentically one of the Mediæval chivalric virtues or whether it’s a modern anachronism that happens to look good. No doubt they will need some updating (as above, for example), but if we’re going to do this, we should do it properly and start with an authentic list.

Is there such a thing?

Investigation reveals that there are numerous lists of chivalric virtues compiled by different authors, and that they vary considerably. The Chanson de Roland (or “Song of Roland”), one of the definitive works of chivalric literature from the period, lists seventeen vows that the knight Roland makes, forming the core of chivalry as it was understood.

But seventeen is an awfully big and particularly unsymbolic number. Can we distill them down to a more manageable and memorable list of virtues?

Other contemporaries certainly did so. Some list as many as twelve chivalric virtues, others nine or seven, others as few as four.

There being no single definitive list, it seems I can use my own judgement. Trust the soul of the knight within, as it were.

The seventeen vows of the knight Roland were as follows:

  • To fear God & maintain His church

  • To serve the liege lord in valour & faith

  • To protect the weak & defenceless

  • To give succour to widows & orphans

  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offence

  • To live by honour & for glory

  • To despise pecuniary reward

  • To fight for the welfare of all

  • To obey those placed in authority

  • To guard the honour of fellow knights

  • To eschew unfairness, meanness & deceit

  • To keep faith

  • At all times to speak the truth

  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun

  • To respect the honour of women

  • Never to refuse a challenge from an equal

  • Never to turn the back upon a foe

By a process of comparing these vows with other existing lists of chivalric virtues, I have distilled it down to the following list. I should note that this is not a definitive list, because such does not exist. It’s my personal list, and you are welcome to take it or leave it.

  1. Courage

  2. Faith

  3. Mercy

  4. Justice

  5. Largesse

  6. Courtesy

  7. Fealty

There. The astute reader may be surprised at a list of chivalric virtues that does not include the most basic knightly quality of honour, but it appears to me that honour is so inextricably tied to so many of these other virtues that I would contend that the virtue of Honour arises from all of the other virtues together, or itself gives rise to them all. The chivalric virtues, then, describe what honour looks like.

I plan to take a series of posts, probably intermittently, and look at each one of the virtues invividually, but in this overview, some idea ought to be given of the scope of each one. Meanings are not always obvious, and I’m deliberately using some words anachronistically rather than in their modern shades of meaning.

This, then, is how I understand these named qualities:

Courage is one of the more readily understood qualities, including not only physical bravery against material threats but also moral courage, the willingness to stand up for what is right even if no-one else is and the willingness to face up to an uncomfortable truth. Its opposite qualities are not only cowardice but bravado – making a show of boldness to hide one’s true fear.

Faith, on the other hand, has a considerably broader meaning than our modern usage would suggest. Faith to us implies first and foremost the idea of religious feeling. Belief in God. In Mediæval thought, however, it’s not belief alone but trust which is at the heart of the idea of faith. An individual of faith not only exhibits an active trust in God, but shows trustworthiness and trusts those who merit it. He or she gives the benefit of the doubt, though is not blind to the fact that some are indeed faithless. She or he keeps their word and acts with integrity.

Mercy covers Roland’s vows of protecting the weak and defenceless, giving succour to widows and orphans, and fighting for the welfare of all. In the words of one definition, mercy is “seeing a need and wanting to help”. And then being moved by that desire into action.

Justice covers a lot of familiar ground, just like courage. It’s tied to faith in its Mediæval sense – acting with integrity and righteousness – but goes beyond, into the idea of proactive standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.

Largesse is a deliberately old-fashioned word. It’s mostly the same as generosity, but it goes beyond that idea. It’s tied to magnanimity and graciousness as well as generosity, and is the opposite of covetousness and avarice. In Roland’s vows, the idea of despising pecuniary reward – doing things not for payment but because they are the right thing to do – encompasses the notion of largesse.

Courtesy is the most similar to what most people think of when they hear the word “chivalry”. However, I am not meaning an empty formalism or condescension, but an attitude of consideration and restraint. The knight Roland’s vows to respect the honour of women – particularly needed in light of #Yesallwomen – and to refrain from the wanton giving of offence encapsulate the idea. We do not go out of our way to offend people, similar to the Biblical injunction not to put any stumbling-block in anyone’s way.

Fealty is another Mediæval word, like largesse, involving respect for authority and knowing one’s place in the order of things. I am expanding it here to include the related idea of humility as expressed in Romans 12:3: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” It goes downwards as well as upwards, tying the one in authority to the one under authority as surely as the other way around. In modern terms, it’s expressed in the ideas of loyalty and allegiance, acknowledgement that you are part of something greater than yourself, and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Seven virtues, which if I wanted to be really Mediæval I could tie in to the characters of the seven Mediæval planets: Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. But while several of them are easy – Courage would go with Mars and Fealty with Jupiter, for example – other relationships are not so clear. So perhaps I won’t.


Edit: It occurred to me some time after publishing this that if I combined the virtues of Mercy and Justice (weird on the face of it, but see here), and separated Humility out from Fealty, that I could get a one-to-one correspondence between the Mediæval planets and my list of chivalric virtues. Which makes a nice (and very appropriate for the time period) secondary symbolic framework to hang this list on, so I might tweak my list enough to do that.

The revised list, with its planetary correspondences, would be as follows:

  1. Faith – Luna

  2. Courtesy – Mercury

  3. Mercy – Venus

  4. Largesse – Sol

  5. Courage – Mars

  6. Fealty – Jupiter

  7. Humility – Saturn

I will explain these correspondences more over the course of this series.

Same Name, Different Bird (part 2)

In my last post, I discussed the differences between the European and American robins, with a definite editorial slant towards the European robin. My personal preferences being arranged the way they are, I have quite a liking for the feisty little European robin, which manifests itself (now that I live in America where there aren’t any European robins) as a mild discomfort with its American counterpart. It’s not really fair to the American robin. Why should I dislike it for not being a European robin?

American robin

Last time, I made the point that we often react the same way when confronted with much more important differences. I’m a follower of Jesus, but I’m acutely aware that there are many who claim the name of Christ, even among people I know personally, whose faith looks very little like my own. People who honestly believe that the Bible mandates a positional authority for men over women. People whose political leanings colour their faith in a different shade to my own. People who seem to have fundamentally different assumptions about what a good Christian is like.

We both claim to be believers and followers of Christ, but just talking with both of us on any serious subject can reveal vast differences of outlook. We have the same name as “Christians”, but we’re vastly different birds. Just like the transatlantic robins.

What can we learn, then, from the fact that the American robin is not a European robin? Can I learn to appreciate it for what it is instead of judging it for what it isn’t? Let’s find out, shall we?

What is the American robin, then, if it isn’t the feisty little destroyer of garden pests I grew up with?

It looks almost exactly the same size and shape as a European song thrush, and sure enough, its scientific name Turdus migratorius reveals it to be a member of the same thrush genus. Thrushes are good birds. The song thrush is known for its melodious voice, and its relative the blackbird is a clever mimic like the mockingbird, and I’ve heard several that liked to incorporate mobile phone ringtones and car alarm sounds into their songs.

Thrushes are also clever, then. The song thrush is intelligent enough to use a flat stone as an “anvil” to crack open snail shells.

Looking up the American robin, the first thing I note is that it’s known as a songbird. It is, in fact, apparently one of the first birds to greet the dawn with its melodious voice. Its song is more complex than the trills of the European robin, and this is what we should expect from a member of the thrush family.

American robins roost in large flocks and are vigilant for predators. The fact that they congregate points to a degree of cooperation and watching one another’s back, though this is a little anthropomorphic. Flocking behaviour and true social behaviour are not quite the same thing.

Like their more familiar European thrush counterparts, they’re clever birds. Clever enough that cowbird (a brood parasite that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests like the cuckoo) eggs generally get spotted and rejected. This is no mean feat; European robins are notorious for being deceived by cuckoos, despite the vast differences in size and appearance between the robins’ own chicks and the intruding cuckoo.

It’s also intelligent enough to be able to complete a fairly long migration south from Canada and the northern US to Florida, the Gulf Coast, Mexico and the Pacific coast.

And I have my key to understanding and appreciating this not-robin robin.

In Levi‘s “lessons from the birds” terms, the lesson from the American robin is… Wisdom.

It’s up with the first light of day, heralding the dawn. This puts me in mind of the sort of prophetic insight that understands the times and knows what should be done.

It is vigilant for predators and watches out for the flock. It can identify an egg that is an impostor and deal with the situation appropriately by rejecting it. How I wish that more believers in Christ would have this sort of discernment – to be able to recognise when something that looks real is not, but is a deception or counterfeit! And the American robin combines this with a collective consciousness that looks out not only for its own self, but for the flock as a whole! Just the way more mature believers are supposed to watch out for the flock they are a part of.

Its migratory behaviour means it needs to know the way. Migratory birds don’t need maps or compasses; they just do it. Again, this looks like the way Scriptural wisdom functions. The Holy Spirit within us, teaching us all things. Guidance when we need it, the promptings of faith, the power to understand the Scriptures…

It has a melodious voice and a song frequently described as “cheerful”. This, too, is wisdom; the wisdom to delight oneself in the Lord and be grateful for His many blessings.

And how does this wisdom come?

We study the Scriptures, either getting up early like the robin or staying up late like the owl. We walk with the wise. We ask the Lord, who gives without stinting.

Wisdom has many facets, and sometimes it can appear in unfamiliar guises. Jesus, God’s Holy Wisdom Himself, did not look or behave at all like people expected – hanging out with prostitutes and traitorous tax-gatherers, calling the most visibly righteous people around “blind guides” and “hypocrites”, dying on a Roman cross…

And to think I dismissed the American robin because it wasn’t the bird I was familiar with!

Same Name, Different Bird (part 1)

There are several American animals and birds that follow the pattern of having the same name as a European bird or animal, but being a totally different creature. The jackrabbit is a hare. The buzzard is a vulture, not a medium-sized hawk. The American kestrel is smaller and prettier than the Eurasian one.

I can cope with most of these changes, because most of them are less everyday and familiar creatures. Unless you live out in the country, you probably won’t be seeing many wild rabbits in an average day in Britain. And anyway, hares and rabbits are close enough that only a pedant could object. No problem with this, nor with most of the other examples of “same name, different creature”.

Except for the robin.

American robin

The American robin is a thrush-sized bird (actually, it is a thrush), much larger than our diminutive European robins. Only the males have the red breast, the females being a mix of grey and brown (unless I’m getting confused with the European blackbird). The male has a black head, grey back and wings, bright yellow beak and large red patch on the breast. They seem to be associated with spring; you see common references to “the first robin of spring”.

European robin

All this is rather a lot to get used to when you’re expecting a little brown-and-grey bird with an orange-red breast and cheeks. If there’s a seasonal association, it’s with winter and Christmas; in a country with an awful lot of little brown birds, the all-year-round bright red breast of the robin is distinctive. It appears on our Christmas cards much like the American cardinal; it’s the right colour and it’s around at that time of year.

I’ve been here for nigh on 9 years now and I still can’t quite get used to the American robin.

Part of it is the difference in personalities of the two birds.

The American robin is a thrush, which means it’s a seasonal bird only around in more northerly latitudes for the summer months before it migrates south for the winter. The European robin is a hardy little thing that braves the long damp cold of a northern winter and keeps on going.

The American robin comes with the spring, which in Texas heralds the dubious promise of a return of temperatures that make me want to use language like “it’s only as hot as hell today”. The European robin is associated with my favourite season, winter. (How on earth did I end up in the state that doesn’t have one?)

Both of them largely eat insects, the American robin largely tackling crickets, grasshoppers and caterpillars. The European robin, on the other hand, belongs to the Old World flycatcher family and is just as likely to be seen with a beakful of lacewing or damselfly. Because of their diet of common plant pests, the robin is known in Britain as “the Gardener’s Friend”.

In shape, it kind of resembles the American kingbirds, which is a very interesting chance of language because the robin has ancient Druidic associations with kingship, perhaps because in winter it substitutes a diet of berries (particularly the old Druidic “winter king” tree Holly) for its summer fare of insects.

European robins are feisty little birds. The males are quite territorial, and show a marked aggression towards the colour red. It doesn’t matter too much to them how big the red thing is, either; they’ve been known to go after post boxes and cars and all sorts. If Batman’s sidekick was named after the bird, it’s the European version that makes the most sense. A tough, aggressive, feisty little bird that preys on common pests.  Makes sense to me. But Robin, like Batman, is an American, and European robins don’t exist here, more’s the pity.

That’s probably why the American robin got its name; it’s not the only non-robin “robin” out there (there’s the Australian scarlet robin and the Asian magpie-robin, for a start). Any flying thing with a distinctly red breast is probably going to get called a robin. If European explorers were to discover a red-breasted dragonish creature with four wings and a long scaly tail on Planet Xincus, it would undoubtedly get called a Xincan robin.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the American robin (except when it shows up in London in the Mary Poppins film. Totally out of place). It’s a lovely-looking bird in its own way.

But I have a liking for small, unexpectedly fierce creatures. The stoat, that regularly takes down rabbits and hares three times its weight. The hobby, a diminutive falcon that is agile enough to catch swallows on the wing. The robin fits right in with that.

It should be no surprise that I married the smallest of three sisters, a woman with a lot of the mindset of a robin. She’s a fighter. That’s part of what I love about her. (At least we’re on the same side!) Holy matrimony, Batman!

But my lingering sense of wrongness about something as ultimately unimportant as a garden bird may go a long way toward explaining why many people are so hostile to anything unlike what they are used to. Like the story about the European explorers of America who hated the Grand Canyon because it wasn’t like the Alps.

There are people who call themselves Christians, for example, with whom I feel very little kinship. Their faith manifests itself in a very different set of assumptions than my own.

Are they Christians? In many cases, I have no reason to doubt their salvation. But it’s a definite case of “same name, different bird”.

How do we react to those with different assumptions? With rejection, or with understanding?


In the spirit of practicing what I preach, my next post ought to be a follow-up to this one, looking at the American robin with understanding, not rejection.

I hope Levi doesn’t think I’m stealing his thunder. This whole “lessons from the birds” thing is his schtick, after all.