Heart

“Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they lose heart” -Colossians 3:21

It being Father’s Day, this verse was the text preached on at my church on Sunday. The NIV that I often use puts it differently: “exasperate” and “so that they do not become discouraged”, but I think I prefer the older language in some ways. Losing heart seems so much deeper and more profound than mere discouragement.

I started to think about the implications of this verse. The instruction is clear enough: don’t go out of your way to rile your kids. Be a Good Dad.

But the reasoning is interesting: “so that they do not lose heart”.

Discouragement and losing heart is so easy in this world. All around us there are attacks on our worth, our self-image, our value. Temptations to believe that only if we look or behave in a certain way are we valued and productive. We call a lot of these “advertising”, but they aren’t what I want to focus on right now.

No, what struck me on Sunday was the idea that a large part of a father’s role might be summarised as creating heart in your children.

If “losing heart” is more than just discouragement, building heart is more than just being an encourager as we normally think of it.

I sometimes believe that the spiritual gift of encouragement is the gift most misunderstood by all the various spiritual gift inventory questionnaires I’ve seen; to a one they all seem to envision a middle-aged woman whose gift finds expression in the sending of cards.

This isn’t very cool if you’re a young woman, and even less helpful if you’re a man. By and large, most men don’t express the gift in that prissy sort of a way, if they have the gift. In some cases it can lead to a lot of misapprehensions about encouragement and what it really is.

Creating heart might be a more useful way of expressing what I’m talking about; it has at least the advantage of not having any baggage of which I’m aware.

So what do I mean by “heart”?

Heart as I’m meaning it encompasses a number of different qualities, foremost among them courage, conviction, integrity, hope, fervour, compassion and faith. It’s a valorous blend of characteristics embodied in every true hero, a blend that enables them to slay the monsters, face down the odds, oppose the tyrant, stare death in the face and spit in his eye. It’s also the blend of qualities that reaches out with compassion and aims to make the world a better place, looking beyond oneself to others.

This is what I want for my daughters and son.

Courage has been described as “the first of qualities, because it guarantees all the others”. I’m not sure this isn’t going a little too far, but certainly courage is important, and a vital part of what I mean by “heart”. In the Colossians verse, losing heart is expressed in the NIV as “becoming discouraged”, and courage is at the heart of that word. Many spiritual virtues take courage: it takes courage to show faith, courage to love, courage to show compassion in a world where it’s thin on the ground. The quality is never listed in any Biblical list of spiritual fruit or character qualities, but perhaps that’s by design, because so much of the time we reduce courage to the physical exigencies of the battlefield and the toughness of mind and body that calls for, when much of what I’m talking about here is moral courage.

Conviction and faith are part of what I mean by heart, because unless you have your heart involved then your “faith” isn’t true Biblical faith at all, merely a sort of cold mental assent. Unlike believing in the Loch Ness Monster, simply acknowledging the existence of the Godhead isn’t enough if your life doesn’t change as a result. As a father, I pray that I’m raising my children to be men and women of conviction, knowing what’s right and pursuing it with vigour.

Integrity goes along with this, because heart encompasses the unification of the inner and outer person. It’s the opposite of wearing masks and hiding: knowing who you are as well as Whose you are, living out of your deep inner self with the courage not to hide and the conviction that there is a purpose for which you were created that will take all your God-given powers.

All of this takes Biblical hope. Not the wishy-washy vague feeling we’ve demeaned it into, but the strong certainty that God has plans and a future for me, to prosper me and not to harm me. That if His purpose takes my life, then it’s not the end, but in His economy some things are worth dying for.

Fervouris involved, because you can’t have all of these qualities and not live with passion. And compassion, because unless it’s directed outwards into the service of the Lord and the blessing of other people, what good is it all? No-one wants to be around a fervent, courage-filled person of conviction who hates other people.

A lofty task and a worthy goal, but how do we do this? I hope I’m building heart in my children, but I’m not always very intentional about it.

I guess it begins here, with this verse. Don’t provoke your children. Don’t exasperate them. Don’t aggravate them. Be reasonable, able to be reasoned with. When you have to lay down the law, do so with grace. Set the example you wish you’d had; everyone comes from an imperfect family and a father’s care that had holes in it, but you need not reproduce all of that.

At its most basic, building heart in your kids means not tearing it out of them. We fathers are often considered the disciplinarians, but correction needs to be delivered in a way that makes our kids want to get it right and which builds into them the ability to do so. That means not tearing into them for trifling offences, but it also means bringing correction when it’s due. Our kids aren’t perfect either, and we who might have had harsh parents need to be careful we aren’t becoming so permissive that our children have no boundaries at all.

Something it’s taken me a while to learn is that my kids respond to different things. One of them, physical discipline just makes her stubborn. If you want to get through to her, she needs to understand why. Another of them, the prospect of reward works wonders (ok, so I bribe my kids sometimes. It seems to work). As their father, I have to tailor my engagement with each of my children, knowing that what encourages one may exasperate another, and yet trying to be even-handed in my approach to them. Nothing poisons family relationships like favouritism (look at the book of Genesis); that would be provoking them.

I’m not trying to claim I’m there or that I do it perfectly, because I’m painfully aware of just how far I fall short. I hope I’m building heart in my kids more than I’m making them lose it, but I expect they’ll have their individual hangups from well-meaning mistakes I made. Hopefully none beyond the grace of God, though.

Resolution, part 2

You know how I said that my New Year’s resolution was resolution?

Well, it seems I’m getting thrown into the growth process a little earlier than I anticipated.

For years now I’ve had a tendency to put relationship before theology. This is far better than the alternative, but the personal effect on me is that often, even when someone I know well has an opinion that I think is completely wrong-headed, I can tend to just keep my mouth shut and let them think I agree.

There’s a reason that I keep my mouth shut if I can. Once I choose to wade into a dispute, I’m probably going to jump on what I see as stupidity with less graciousness as I should. I argue like my Dad’s family; I’m a Horswood with all that goes with it. It truly is nothing personal; I’m going after your ideas, not you personally. But I’ve noticed that very few people are able to cope with Horswood-style “take no prisoners” debating without taking it personally, so I’ve tended to shut my mouth when dealing with face-to-face differences of opinion on important issues. In the relative anonymity of the blogosphere I’m a lot more vociferous.

There is, too, certainly a time and a place for just keeping your mouth shut. It does not help anyone to get into arguments with people with whom you have limited relationship. Some heavy freight is too much for as-yet fragile, formative relational bridges to bear.

However, there are people in my life that I’ve known for a long time, yet I have always refrained from saying what I really think around them. They are people of strong and rigid opinions, and I do not relish a fight. I tell myself that I don’t want to damage the relationship. I love these people, even if they are blissfully unaware of just how little we agree in practice.

But I’ve become convicted that bending myself into pretzel shapes to suit other people’s strong opinions is not something I need to be doing, especially when it crosses my own conviction lines.

So I’ve reached a decision that I’m not going to do that any more. I’m going to be polite, I’m going to keep on listening, I’m going to keep on loving. But I am not going to compromise and ignore my own core beliefs in order to pretend that I agree with someone I love and know well when I don’t.

I’d appreciate your prayers, dear blogosphere. This has the potential to be one of the most difficult things I have ever done.

Oh, and I should probably also say that I’m not talking about my wife 🙂

Courage (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of the Chivalric Virtues series. For the series introduction, go here


And at length we come to the virtue of Courage, the virtue I intended to examine first when I started this series. Perhaps the paramount virtue of knighthood and the one most readily associated with masculinity, it’s symbolised in my Mediæval planetary scheme by Mars, of course. As I seem to be following the Mediæval Ptolemaic planetary order from lowest to highest, it comes fifth in order.

Courage is readily associated with battle and conflict (thus its association with Mars), and we are quick to recognise the quality of virtue of the soldier who puts themselves in harm’s way on behalf of their nation. Valour in arms is only one type of courage, however, and though it exemplifies much of this hard virtue, it is not the totality of it.

Valour in arms is largely physical courage: the courage to face physical danger. Other sorts of courage have a more moral nature: the courage to take an unpopular stand for what’s right. Indeed, in British politics a decision that will be unpopular enough to lose you an election is euphemistically referred to as a “courageous” one. The courage to face an unpalatable truth rather than seeking refuge in a pleasant lie. The courage to open up and be vulnerable rather than erecting walls up to the sky.

Courage is not fearlessness. Though we sometimes get that idea, true courage is acceptance of the risk, because either the cause or the gain is worthwhile.

A large part of courage is risk. Courage is a virtue that isn’t on display a lot until it’s needed. But in a time of danger or risk, it’s the person of courage who rises to the challenge. They may be shaking in their boots, but the mark of true courage is not fearlessness but acting rightly despite felt fear.

Courage doesn’t have to prove anything. If you’re feeling a need to prove how brave or how fearless you are, what you’re dealing with is bravado, not courage.

Bravado is the sort of false courage that takes stupid risks for no good reason. Bravado makes a big show of fearlessness, but when it comes to the crunch they’ll bow to social pressure. It always has something to prove, always has a need to go one better. Bravado will not only jump the shark, but do a triple backflip.

Courage doesn’t need to show off. Mars’ metal iron isn’t something you normally employ for decorative purposes the way you would gold or silver. But iron has a strength and hardness to it that gold and silver lack utterly.

Fascinatingly, Mars’ Greek counterpart Ares was portrayed as a coward. In some ways it seems almost absurd to make one’s war god cowardly, but sich were the ancient Greeks. Perhaps it’s a reminder that what we often consider the forge for the development of courage – the field of battle – can sometimes produce not a courageous warrior but a swaggering bully.

The field of battle favours the physically strong, but physical strength and skill are not courage. Courage may supply the will and fortitude to gain the strength and skill in arms, but courage is first and foremost a moral quality. Our English word is derived from the Old French corage, itself related to the Latin word cor, meaning “heart”. Courage, then, is a quality of heart, not of flesh. It’s ultimately sacrificial; putting itself in harm’s way for a cause, a loved one, a belief. It’s no accident that in Dante’s cosmos the Heaven of Mars was the sphere of martyrs.

We may need to step back here and define what we mean by “martyrdom”. The word’s got a bit of a bad reputation through the actions of Islamic “martyrs” who are willing to blow themselves up in order to take those they consider their enemies with them. Christian martyrdom will have none of that. The bright company of Christian martyrs are those who have courageously faced persecution and death. Who have preached the Good News about Jesus Christ in the face of hardship and sword. Who have been imprisoned, tortured and executed because they will not give up their faith, who go to meet their Saviour with a song of praise on their lips.

All that they have in common with Islamic “martyrs” is a willingness to die if necessary.

It requires a whole different level of courage to look into the eyes of a persecutor and refuse to deny Jesus, knowing that they will kill you unless you do, than to march to the battle line with weapons in hand and enter the firefight. This is not to minimise the courage of those who do, but to say that sometimes there’s no glory in courage. Just doing the hard thing that’s needed.

In the sci-fi TV series Babylon 5, there was an exchange in which one of the characters quotes from the Scripture: “‘Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his brother’. Not for glory. Not for armies, not for empires. For one person. In the dark, where no-one will see.”

This is the essence of true courage, and how we distinguish it from bravado. What do you do in the dark, where no-one can see.

It’s one thing to do the right thing where everyone can see you and heap praise on you for your actions. It’s quite another to make a stand all alone in the night. In that circumstance, when it all comes down to your own choice, is when you find out what’s really in your heart.

Fear, I suspect, for most of us, even with the Biblical command to Joshua: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous…”

Great. Now I’m still terrified and I feel guilty about it.

But that’s not the point. God is the One who spoke the universe into being. He’s the One who commanded Peter to walk on the water. His commands carry with them the ability to obey. Think about it. He said to the light “Be”, and it was. Is it really too much to believe that at His “Be strong and courageous”, that strength and courage were birthed into the heart of Joshua?

This is how it works. If we trust Him, and do what’s right, He supplies what we need. Even courage.

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.

When a Knight Won His Spurs

There’s something about the image of the mediæval knight that won’t let me go.

Since childhood the idea of knighthood has been powerfully attractive. The title of this piece is taken from one of the few decent school songs we used to sing in assembly:

When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old

He was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold

With a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand

For God and for valour he rode through the land

The song went on from there to paint life as a knightly enterprise; a fight “‘gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed”.

Unlike some of the things we sang, this one spoke to me on a deep level. I already had a mind of valiant last stands, death-or-glory charges and mediævalist romanticism, and this fed right into it, so much so that I can still remember the words to this day.

I liked the idea of chess at least partly because one of the pieces was called a knight. But when I actually started to play I quickly became frustrated by how difficult the knights were for my child brain to use effectively.

Even in my love of sci-fi, the idea of knighthood persisted. One of the reasons the Jedi were and are so cool was that they were Jedi Knights, dedicated to the knightly ideals of justice, might in the service of right, and the defence of the weak.

One of my ambitions to this day is to own a broadsword. (Ideally I’d like to have this before my daughters start dating, so that I can sit by my front door sharpening the thing when the boys come to call. I realise that a shotgun is probably more effective as a weapon, but a broadsword has style.) As I said, there’s something about the imagery of knighthood that won’t let me go.

In fact, the ideals of knighthood and Mediæval chivalry form the core of my conception of masculinity. To be a real man is to take on something of the virtue of a knight.

Chivalry has garnered something of a bad reputation in modern times. Associated first with simple politeness, it then became something that men displayed towards women – opening doors, being courteous, treating women with respect. But then it began to be perceived as condescension, tied into the whole “weaker sex” thing. All I can say about women being the weaker sex is that anyone who believes that has obviously never been around the process of childbirth, quite aside from the wonderful strong examples of womanhood in society, history and Scripture.

I’d like to return chivalry to its roots, and hopefully go some way towards rehabilitating it as an ideal.

Chivalry and knighthood go hand in hand. The root word for chivalry is the French word chevalierie, meaning “knighthood”. Chivalry, then, was the complex of behaviours and attitudes expected of the true knight.

It all started out as a system for determining who could fairly attack whom.

Attacking a peasant or someone from the common classes was beneath the dignity of a proper knight, because peasants couldn’t spend their lives training for war nor afford the protective gear of knights, and it was and is wrong for the strong to prey on the weak. It was unfair to attack someone who was inherently less able than you. If they attacked you, you could defend yourself, but you should never attack someone weaker. Knighthood is thus the opposite of bullying.

Admittedly, in purely historical terms, this rule was almost certainly honoured more in the breach than the observance, but archetypal roles are defined by their ideals, not their failures.

Building on the radical notion that the strong should not prey on the weak, chivalry evolved into a complete code of behaviour, unifying the greatest deeds of valour and derring-do and the smallest acts of courtesy and politeness in a single system. For the true knight, no feat of courage was so great that it should not be attempted, and no courtesy was so small that it could be safely overstepped. The two were one. He was gentle and brave.

In this essence of knightly behaviour, then, the ideal is that you use your power on behalf of those who cannot protect themselves. Like the ideal of proper policing, the knight was the upholder of justice and the law, the defender of the innocent, the protector of the defenceless. In the Mediæval world, this meant women and children, but the principle is of wider application. It’s just as wrong for the wealthy to use their economic muscle to prey on the poor, just as antithetical to the ideal of knighthood for preachers or teachers to exploit those entrusted to their care. It’s wrong for the bully to use his strength to cow and overpower those weaker than he (or she; bullying is not restricted by gender any more than knightly behaviour is).

Chivalry shouldn’t be a condescension, though it can devolve into one. It’s all about how you use your strength. Might in the service of right. You show every courtesy right down to the smallest because that exhibits a proper respect for other people. You do not shrink from the hardest acts of courage because that’s what courage is about. Gallantry, boldness, courage in the face of fear, doing what’s right no matter the personal cost.

It’s a high ideal, and it’s one that I still hold to this day as the core of my concept of manhood. Gentle and brave, gallant and bold. Knightly.

The knightly virtues of courage, faith, justice, reverence, courtesy, integrity and honour have a personal resonance that few other things do. Even though I’m fully aware of just how far from the original conception the modern honour is, it’s still one of my secret dreams to do something meriting a knighthood one day. It may be foolishness, but it’s meaningful foolishness. At least, it’s meaningful to me.

By an amusing coincidence, my wife’s American high school used a knight as their school badge. However, their conception of knighthood was totally wrong. The school team were the “Blue Raiders”; this is the antithesis of proper knighthood. When you say “Blue Raider”, I think Picts or Celts, or some kind of evil Smurf (apologies, L. D. Bell High School). Apart from the evil Smurf, it can be a good and strong identity for a sports team – powerful, agrressive and proactive – but a knight is the wrong image. Raiders are predators in human form. Knights are the guys that defend you from raiders.

With the knightly ideal forming one of the cornerstones of my sense of identity, it’s probably no wonder I struggle with the portrayal of God in Lover terms by a lot of modern worship music. There’s little place for a God who is Lover in my sense of knighthood. As a man who thinks of themselves as a knight, I can serve my King, fight injustice at the orders of my Commander, worship the Lord as Light and Truth, follow Him on pilgrimage as my Leader. I can grow like Him as Son, I can even know Him as the Word and the Truth. I can give my life in His cause, and if necessary, by His grace make an end worthy of a true martyr of God. But there’s no good place for responding to Him as Lover and Bridegroom.

And the weird thing (as far as modern worship would have you believe) is that I don’t feel any sense of incompleteness about it.

I know He loves me. But the important thing is that He’s my King and He loves me.

For better or for worse, I think of myself in chivalric terms. I may have the body of a 21st-Century nerd, but I have the soul of a knight from the High Middle Ages.

So to see my children playing knights yesterday was a source of great joy for me. I have successfully reproduced myself. Tremble, O world.

Thunderbirds Are Go: Heroism in Thunderbirds and Rescue Heroes

For my birthday recently, my dad bought me the technical manual from one of my favourite childhood TV programmes: Thunderbirds.

Most people in the US won’t be familiar with this iconic piece of 1960s British television, unless it’s via the 2004 film remake, but it’s fairly similar in concept to the Rescue Heroes TV show my kids watch (which is a spinoff of the Fisher-Price toy line of the same name).

Thumbing through the pages of my book in an unashamed nostalgia trip, I’ve been struck by both the similarities, and more importantly the differences, between the two shows, particularly in the area of what heroism is about.

Both shows follow the adventures of an international team of heroes who serve as a last-ditch emergency response team who can save people where no-one else can reach. For Rescue Heroes, this organisation is known as the “Global Response Team” (or more popularly as the “Rescue Heroes”; in Thunderbirds, “International Rescue” (the “Thunderbirds” are the amazing machines and vehicles they use to perform their rescue duties). Both are set in a futuristic world, though Rescue Heroes is a lot closer to the present day. Both teams of heroes utilise advanced technology to perform their amazing rescue adventure feats. This is far more obviously the case in Thunderbirds, but no less true of Rescue Heroes: where would they be without their Rescue Jet or all the other gadgetry they use?

But it’s the differences I find most informative.

There are the obvious differences in format and intended audience. Rescue Heroes is a cartoon based on a series of children’s action figures. Thunderbirds was intended for a whole family audience accessible and enjoyable by both children and adults, and was filmed using Gerry Anderson’s iconic mix of live-action model shots and marionette puppetry. Sometimes you could clearly see the strings, but no-one cared because the stories were engaging and this was the 1960s: virtually the Dawn of Time as far as special effects went.

These differences create a vast divergence of look, particularly where the main characters are concerned, by virtue of the constraints of their origin, but I find the differences oddly symbolic.

The Rescue Heroes, given their origin as action figures, have huge feet and gigantically muscular upper bodies with tiny heads. The first part of this is in reality a way to make sure the action figures stand up easily; I can sympathise, remembering the fine balance needed to stand up some of my childhood Star Wars figures in anything like a realistic pose. The second part of it is to emphasise their qualities as macho men of action. The female characters aren’t anything like so broad-shouldered and muscular, but neither boys nor girls are generally thrilled with a female action figure built like a cross between King Kong and Popeye the Sailor.

The men of International Rescue (we’ll get into the issue of diversity in a minute) were marionette puppets, and thus had disproportionately large heads in order to help accommodate their internal workings. Their bodies, by comparison, were smaller and more sticklike. It wasn’t that they weren’t strong; it was that physical strength played second fiddle to their expertise in piloting their specialised rescue vehicles. With advanced machines to do most of the heavy lifting, they needed to be smart much more than they needed to be physically strong and fit.

Rescue Heroes is all about a group of people who have the extensive training and physical fitness to do hard physical jobs (rescuing people). By contrast, Thunderbirds was, in a sense, all about the vehicles. The crew weren’t the Thunderbirds, except by extension; the Thunderbirds were the five major vehicles they operated. Thunderbird 1 was the reconnaissance and situation assessment jet, Thunderbird 2 the heavy transport, Thunderbird 3 the space rocket, Thunderbird 4 the submarine and Thunderbird 5 the orbital monitoring station. Even many of the minor vehicles had names: the Mole, the Firefly, the Thunderizer. By contrast, most of the Rescue Heroes’ vehicles don’t even have proper names. Jake Justice’s “Justice Cycle” is about as flamboyant as it gets.

All this makes for a very different kind of heroism. Besides the courage common to both bands of heroes, in Rescue Heroes, it takes raw physical power and the training to make the most of it to make a hero. They aren’t stupid, but intelligence is not their prime qualification for their role, rather, physical fitness and training. In Thunderbirds, it’s far less about strength and physical training and far more about high technology and the skill and delicate touch to operate it at peak utility. Perhaps this is why I’m far less focused on the raw physicality of AMerican machismo (I don’t hunt, fish, do sports or shoot big guns for fun). Even in my favourite TV programmes as a child, it was about brains, not brawn.

Another obvious difference is that Rescue Heroes has a far more diverse cast. As ought to be expected in a modern children’s TV programme, men and women serve on equal footing, and there are a diversity of races represented. The team leader Billy Blazes (one of the annoying features of the show, and a legacy of its origins as a toy line, is the nomenclative cheesiness. Billy Blazes is a fireman. Jake Justice is a police officer. Ariel Flier is a pilot. Roger Houston commands their version of Thunderbird 5) may be a white male, but his effective second-in-command is a woman (Wendy Waters). The usual main point-of-view character is the relative newbie: climber Rocky Canyon, a young black man. Ariel is Hispanic as well as a woman, and in the rotating cast of second-stringers there are Brits and Australians and probably Japanese and others, too. The deliberate internationalsm of the main cast is not something you get very often in America, and it’s one of the reasons I put up with its cheesy names.

By contrast, Thunderbirds is something of a product of its age. When it was made, Britain was overwhelmingly mono-ethnic; it was only in the 1960s that the first wave of non-white immigrants (from Jamaica at the time) began to reach our shores. At the time, then, Britain was a very white world, and Thunderbirds reflects that. There are a few interesting highlights, though, given the much more white, male-dominated culture. The heroes are a family of one father and his 5 sons (according to the in-story explanation it was their mother’s death in a tragic accident that led Jeff Tracy to create International Rescue in the first place). Given that the market for a TV show featuring a black family at that time was vanishingly small, the fact that the main characters were all brothers does tend to skew the race statistics. Kyrano and his daughter Tin Tin were token non-whites, from somewhere Southeast Asian and exotic. Even among the regulars, Thunderbirds was never exclusively white, though it’s probably one of the reasons it won’t ever get remade as a modern TV programme.

In terms of female characters, Thunderbirds fared marginally better. Yes, the five main characters were men (the Tracy brothers Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John), but among the supporting characters were two strong female characters, Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and Tin Tin. Lady Penelope gave the appearance of a jet-setting aristocratic socialite, but in reality was a kind of female James Bond without the messy sex life. Tin Tin was shyer and more traditionally demure, but was also portrayed as an expert pilot and lover of “dangerous” (as they were often considered) sports like skiing and rock-climbing. Not too shabby, given the age of the show and how far society has moved on since its debut.

It ties in interestingly with the question of what makes a hero, though. The Rescue Heroes are able to do their job because they are highly trained. You see glimpses of their training, and hear them gripe about how ridiculously tough their training is. International Rescue are heroes because they have access to some highly advanced rescue equipment and have a bucketload of courage and moral sense. In both worlds, anyone can be a hero, but what does it take to make you one?

The highly advanced technology of Thunderbirds leads to probably the most fascinating difference between the two shows: public profile. In-story, the Rescue Heroes are known and receive public recognition, whereas International Rescue are secret and go to great lengths to keep it that way.

The in-story reason for this secrecy was that the Thunderbirds’ technology was so advanced that villainous interests were after it for destructive purposes. To safeguard the moral use of the technology, the Thunderbirds’ base was disguised and the identities of the crewmembers were a closely-guarded secret. It is their moral sense that makes them heroes, because of this need to stop their rescue technology from falling into the wrong hands.

Though they did not wear masks, they did wear a uniform, partaking of the facelessness which uniforms help to give people.

The secrecy led to some wonderful model shot sequences: the elaborate modes by which the brothers would enter their machines, sliding down disguised chutes and riding couches down long shafts, and to the amazing launch sequences themselves, including the swimming pool sliding aside for Thunderbird 1 to launch from beneath.

Utterly impractical in real life, of course, but we willingly suspended disbelief. Like superheroes, they had secret identities pretending to be idle rich boys while saving the world.

By comparison, the Rescue Heroes are publically known. Selected from global rescue organisations by virtue of their vast individual skills, the world knows their names. People say things like “But you’re a Rescue Hero; you’re not supposed to…” Fill in the blank.

They don’t make a big deal over it, but they are known celebrities. People invite them to speak because of their status. They are publically acclaimed. You can almost imagine paparazzi dogging their steps in their off hours.

It’s a very different concept of what’s involved in heroism from what I grew up with with Thunderbirds. With Rescue Heroes, the focus is on our response to heroism. The Rescue Heroes, and the emergency response personnel they are oversteroided versions of, regularly do things that deserve our gratitude, respect and adulation, and we ought to give it to them. Public acclaim is part of what makes them heroes, because a hero is someone you acclaim and look up to. It actually helps their mission, because people listen to them because of their status. The whole show is more than a bit sledgehammer on the issue of safety, so their “Hero” status gives them a platform to speak on safety and not being an idiot.

In Thunderbirds, the focus is more on being a hero. Not to seek acclaim. The important thing is the result: lives are saved and people are helped. In the Thunderbirds universe, public acclaim would hinder the mission, not help it. True heroism is able to do the job without need of headlines, adulation and name recognition.

With this as my baseline for what constitutes heroism, it’s no wonder I’m so averse to the whole modern “reality TV” thing. I grew up on Thunderbirds, in which people saved a busload of people and no-one knew their name, and now here’s Big Brother in which people become household names for being couch potatoes with personalities more grating than anyone else’s.  Or Duck Dynasty, in which people have become heroes for being opinionated rednecks. (But entertaining opinionated rednecks).

What did you do to earn this public adulation? Nothing. Meaningless celebrity, the pursuit of fame for its own sake.

What does it take to be a hero? According to Thunderbirds, the moral courage to do the deed without the recognition and adulation. Deeds make heroes, not public acclaim.

Interestingly, Scripture shows a little of both. In the Thunderbirds mould, we are encouraged to do our giving in secret and not to be like the Pharisees, about whom Jesus said that “everything they do is done for men to see” (Mt23:5). True heroes don’t need public kudos; they do what’s necessary because they are there and it needs doing.

But in the Rescue Heroes mould we are told with respect to the Proverbs 31 “woman of valour” to “Give her the reward she has earned, and let her deeds praise her at the city gate” (Pr31:31). True women (and men) of valour are worthy of praise. Failing to give honour to one who has earned it is categorically not right.

It’s an interesting difference in perspective, no?