That Thou Art Mindful of Him

The one thing I insisted on in our wedding ceremony that I might do differently now was that I wanted to be pronounced “man and wife” rather than “husband and wife” like the pastor preferred to pronounce.

At the time, I was coming out of a long process of trying to understand my manhood and what it means to be a true man, and I thought it was a significant reflection of that struggle to be pronounced a man.

These days, I wonder if I wasn’t feeding one of the many cultural lies about what it means to be a man. The Man Gets The Girl is a subtle one, because there is something powerfully attractive in a man being a true man, but if that’s what you’re using to define your manhood and masculinity, I’d suggest you may be missing it.

The subject of what makes a man is one I’ve looked at before from time to time, but it’s an important one because our culture doesn’t have good answers. I sometimes wonder whether some of the rise of modern homosexuality may be a reaction to these bad answers about what manhood is all about, but there’s probably more to it than that, and I’m no expert on that subject. I’m relentlessly straight and I find the idea that (for whatever reason it is that people turn out as homosexuals) in a different universe I might not be… disquieting.

Anyway, in this post I want to start to unwrap what it might mean to be a true man in God’s sight. To try to begin to answer the question, using the old King James language, “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?”

The American culture of my experience (Texas over the last 10 years or so) is far more gender-segregated than I consider normal. For the record, I’m a Brit, specifically an Englishman (they aren’t the same) but I’ve been out of the UK for at least that long, and a decade is long enough for memory to start playing tricks. In Texas, there are very definite “men’s areas” and “women’s areas” of activity and social interaction. Women cook, men grill. Men watch and play sports, women chat and interact over the preparation of meals. Weddings are almost entirely Woman’s Domain, with male input reduced to providing labour and the slightly odd custom of the “groom’s cake” – an excuse to have chocolate cake at a wedding that’s traditionally decorated to showcase the groom’s personality or interests. I found about weddings being designated female territory when I tried to relieve some of my wife’s pre-wedding stress by doing some of the phoning-around inquiries about the flowers. Florist after florist gave me short, abrupt treatment and I was left with the distinct flavour of “I don’t want to talk to you, you interloper!”

My wife calls the same florists – instant helpfulness and charm. Like it wasn’t even the same people.

Utter foolishness, particularly in sales representatives, but this is Texas.

My land of birth doesn’t have a lot of these unmarked zones of gender-based interdiction (not that I remember encountering, anyway) and I was caught totally unprepared.

To this day I consider these unmarked zones to be the adult equivalent of cooties. Hedged about with social opprobrium bordering on shame, they seem to define masculinity and femininity based on arbitrary cultural standards that have little to do with Biblical values.

I’ve learned (the hard way, sometimes) that if we build our lives and our identities on relative human standards and values, we are building on shifting sand. I’m far more interested in what God thinks a Real Man ought to look like than in what the cowboy-derived Texan culture has to say about it.

The “masculinity culture”, if I can use that term, around me places a high value on machismo, separated gender roles, strength and hard work. By “masculinity culture” I mean the cultural expectations that get used to define what being a Real Man is about.

Personally, I think machismo is juvenile, most if not all separated gender roles are arbitrary limits on the breadth of diversity God has created, and hard work is a particularly American cultural value. And strength need not be defined solely, or even mostly, in physical terms. If I hadn’t sorted out my sense of identity as a man before I got married, I’d be in a world of hurt over the issue right now, because there seems little for me in the general Texan expectations.

It’s not just in the secular world, either. In the church, too, we have our ideas about what proper manhood looks and acts like, and even some of those seem like they owe more to the surrounding culture than to the Lord. For example the idea that “women need love, men need respect”. This idea is fine up to a point; men and women do tend to perceive their relational needs differently and respond to different things. But beyond that point it can become a self-serving lie that encourages men to be out-of-touch with their own emotions and desires (men need respect, not love) and disrespectful of their wives (women need love, not respect). Unfortunately I’ve seen it happen.

I may touch on this some more in a follow-up post; for the rest of this one I’d like to return to the issue of machismo.

We all know what machismo looks like, whether it’s opening beer bottles with your teeth or biting into the ghost pepper or flexing in front of the mirror or the trophy buck heads on the wall. It’s swagger. Brag. A constant drive to prove that you’re worthy to be called a man.

And yes, I did use the word “juvenile” earlier.

You see, it looks to me very much as though machismo is based almost entirely on fear: fear of what other people think.

At best, constantly having to prove you’re a man looks insecure. At worst, I’ve lived according to fear of man, and it’s a pretty worthless way to live. It’ll suck dry everything of value and leave you an empty shell full of other people’s expectations. I don’t want any part of it.

To me, one of the signs that you’re a real man – an adult, not a boy in a grown-up’s body – is that you don’t have anything to prove.

Forget trying to prove you’re a man; just be one.

Of course, to do this we have to come to a place of security in our God-ordained identity, not just as a human being but as a man (or a woman, but I’m talking particularly to men here), and not just as a man but as me.

And therein lies the difficulty, which is why so many of us men get stuck in the endless insecure loop of having to prove ourselves over and over again.

The Real Man doesn’t need to swagger and brag. Does an iceberg keep leaping out of the water to show everyone how big it is? A true man goes through life without the swagger of insecure arrogance. Head up and shoulders back, as my wife puts it, not compromising or downgrading who they are either, but strong where it counts: in their character and inner sense of self.

For me, one of the big things has been getting my heart around the idea that God doesn’t think I’m junk. I’ve talked about this before, but being told (as we are so many well-meaning times) that “you may think you’re junk, but God loves you and paid a high price for you” did little to squash my inner conviction that I was junk. Junk that God happened to love and was willing to pay an outrageous price for, but junk nonetheless.

I needed something extra, and it came in the realisation of some of the implications of God’s omniscience. As I said before, the implication that God is all-seeing means that He sees everything as it really is, without camouflage or falsehood or mistake. So if He says I’m worth the price He paid, that is my true value. Jesus loves me, this I know. Do not be afraid.

How can I possibly need to prove anything?

Who God Says He Is (Anniversary post)

Well, today is my first anniversary of having this blog, and it quite caught me by surprise!  In honour of this momentous occasion, I’ve reworked my “Who God Says He Is” miniseries into a single, longer post.  Apart from my introductory post (since reworked into the “Why “The Word Forge”? Page), this was my first post.  Enjoy!


In Exodus 34, God passes before Moses and proclaims His name. This is the first time since the pre-Fallen Adam that a human being has seen God without veil of disguise or vision, which makes it an incredibly significant event. What God says here in connection with this is key to our understanding of His nature and character.

In essence, this is the clearest single statement we have of who God says He is. If we get this wrong, we will have a distorted image of God, which will skew our understanding of the Scriptures, of who we are and of what He has called us to.

Who, then, is our God?

YHWH, YHWH

The eternal Name of God. The Great I AM, as He revealed Himself to Moses. Eternal, without “I Was”, nor yet “I Will Be”. Changeless in His character, the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus faithful and reliable. The same God who created the world good. The same God who went looking for Adam. The same God who saved Noah’s household because of his righteousness. The same God who would not sweep away the righteous with the guilty when destroying Sodom, who promised to spare the city for the sake of as few as ten righteous people.

Self-existent, without “I think, therefore…” The only One who exists simply because He exists, without reference to anything else. He alone is the fount of everything else that exists, because He alone is self-existent and not contingent on other things. He owes His existence to no thing; on the contrary, all things owe their existence to Him.

His self-existence implies All-Power, too. Limitless in His strength, the Creator of all things who was before all things. Not contingent on anything, He alone is the one who is in control. Nothing is beyond His reach, no act beyond His power, no sinner too far gone to save. Not mastered by anything, because He Himself depends on nothing.

The Compassionate and Gracious God

Full of grace and mercy. Giving fallen humans the good things they do not deserve and not giving them the bad things they do deserve.

Grace is, as Yancey says, the last best word. If we haven’t paid on time, sometimes there’s a “grace period” before punishment kicks in. In music, “grace notes” are special extra notes whose absence does not affect the tune but whose presence bring it alive. “Graceful” decribes beauty of motion and form. “Gracious” describes unwarranted kindness. “Gratitude” is the appropriate response when we are given something. We “say grace” before a meal to express thankfulness. Something “gratis” is not to be paid for.

Compassion and mercy are allied; two aspects of the same thing. Compassion has been defined as “seeing someone in need and wanting to help”. Mercy has been defined as not getting what you deserve. Giving someone a second chance. Withholding punishment out of love for the person. Mercy values people. Compassion sees a need – people are sinful and fallen – and wants to help. God has the desire as well as the power to do something about the human fallen condition.

These are, after His name, the first things God says about Himself. Along with His Divine power and eternal nature, this is the root from which it all stems.

He describes Himself as “the gracious and compassionate God” with good reason. The Ba’als and Ammons and Marduks of the ancient world weren’t gracious and compassionate. They were harsh and cruel. They were deities of vicious power, capricious and despotic, divine parodies of the horrific abuses of authority practised by the kings of the earth. Like their followers, they lorded it over their subjects and required grovelling obesiance. They could be bought off, but they never showed compassion, much less grace. Their help was always to be paid for.

How unlike our Lord! The gracious and compassionate God, who desires to help and will not be paid for it, because nothing we can offer Him will cover the cost. Who bears the price Himself, because He wants to.

Slow to anger

Not capricious and mercurial. Not dangerous and to be dreaded and feared, as if He will fly off into a rage over the slightest thing. Slow to get angry. Not quick to bring judgement, because He wants people to turn from their wickedness and gives every possible opportunity for them to do so.

A God who, though the all-powerful I AM, is in control of His temper. Who does not “lose it”. Who is not mastered by His anger or by anything else, but is in control of Himself. A God like this will not immediately whack off toes if they step out of line. It takes effort to bring Him to the point of executing judgement. Slow to anger, not easily provoked, not looking for an excuse to smite.

The gods of the nations were as capricious and easily angered as the elements – a Ba’al or a Chemosh who is slow to anger is a contradiction in terms. Only God can be rightly described as slow to anger, because only God is above the natural world and fully in control of Himself.

Abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness

Bestowing His favour lavishly, with an ocean-sized bucket rather than a medicine dropper. Not counting how much favour He’s giving you, as if there are invisible limits after which He has to stop giving. “Sorry; you just exceeded the recommended dosage of My favour” are words you will never hear from the Lord. He gives with abundance, because He Himself is without limitation. “His bountiful care what tongue can recite”. We see it in wildflowers scattered on a hillside at the back end of nowhere, beauty mostly unseen by the eyes of man. We see it in the rain, which falls on both the righteous and the unrighteous, and on the sea, which is already full of water. We see it in the sun’s boundless energy and light scattered on the entire surface of the earth and out into space where it serves no purpose at all. Limitless abundance.

And an abundance of what? Of favour. Of lovingkindness. Active tender care. Kindness stemming from love. Limitless goodness. As Rich Mullins put it: “And this Man of no reputation loves us all with relentless affection”.

Affection is a mild word, but we so misuse the word love sometimes that perhaps it’s better to avoid it. Relentless affection, kindness, wanting the best for others, wanting to bless and to do good for.

And unlike people, able to see exactly what real good and real blessing look like, because He is not blinded by sin and is limitless in wisdom. Not only does He have the desire to help us in our need for redemption, but more than that, He doesn’t stop there. There is no room in His character for a Redemption that stops with justification. He wants to bless, and to do so abundantly. He wants to go on and sanctify totally, to enable us to walk in His abundant favour, enjoying Him and in close, harmonious fellowship with Him. He wants to do us good, to satisfy our desires with good things. For no particular reason, just because. Not because we earn it or because we deserve it, but because He wants to. It’s who He is.

Maintaining love to thousands

Constant in His favour and love. Not just showing love once, but continuing to love. Reliable in His love, so that His people are not high in His favour one day and cast out the next, based on the unfathomable whims of an inscrutable Deity. When He says He loves you, it is not something that fluctuates with the seasons, nor even with our own righteousness. Firm, trustworthy, a Rock worth building your life on. His love can no more change than He can cease to be the I AM.

Maintaining love, not just to a select few, but to thousands. Multitudes. No-one can say “well, He loves you, but He couldn’t possibly love me”. In most ancient counting systems, thousands were the highest numbers they had. The Greeks and some others had myriads – ten-thousands – but a lot of cultures at this stage stopped with thousands. It’s also about the biggest number the human brain can really grasp effectively. Talking of thousands to whom the Lord continued to show love is using a multiple of the biggest number. It’s as if He’s saying “yes, even you.” No-one is excepted from being loved by the Lord.

Forgiving rebellion, iniquity and sin

Because He is gracious and compassionate, because He is slow to anger, because He abounds with lovingkindness, and because He maintains love to thousands, He is forgiving. Forgiveness streams as naturally from His character as light from the sun.

Rebellion is the sin of willful disobedience. Rooted in pride, it will not humble itself and admit need or ask for help, but in its insanity assumes it knows best. Rebellion mistrusts the goodness of God, wanting instead to do its own thing and be its own arbiter. Contrary and stubborn, it will not yield, will not bow, will not obey, even when doing so is in its own obvious best interest. Perverse, it insists on its own way, will not take counsel, will not accept help, and will not bow the knee to the One who alone is worthy. And because it will not bow to true Authority, it creates false ones. Every tyranny on the planet is ultimately rebellious at heart. It’s no accident that with the sole exception of America, every rebellion or war of independence ever fought has turned almost immediately to despotism. It’s the spirit of rebellion.

Iniquity is impurity. Rejecting the pure and holy and craving the depraved and impure, it’s the dark, self-destroying impulse that wants what it wants, dammit, no matter that it is poison. Expressed in everything from sexual licentiousness and porn to gluttony, selfish ambition and abusive domination, it describes the fallen condition that takes drugs knowing that they will kill, which craves its own ruin and hates that which is pure.

Between them, they pretty much cover the bases of human depravity. But just in case we can come up with a reason why our sin is unforgiveable, He also states that He forgives “sin”, without categorization or modifying adjective.

It’s not because we deserve it. If we deserved to be forgiven we would not need it. He forgives because of who He is. Because if He did not, He would no longer be the gracious and compassionate God. He does it because He Is Who He Is.

Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished

And only after His goodness, grace, mercy and forgiveness have been firmly fixed in our minds does He begin to talk about His justice. He doesn’t leave the guilty unpunished.

Grace and mercy cannot exist without justice. Unjust grace is not grace; cannot be grace. Unjust mercy is equally oxymoronic. Without the context of righteous justice, grace and mercy are random chance, not deliberate goodness.

God does not overlook sin; He deals with it. He doesn’t treat the wound of His people as though it is not serious, papering over our inward depravity with little legalisms and obediences. Evil has consequences, both for those who are sinners and those who are sinned against. God cannot be good and allow us to continue in sin; that’s not forgiveness, it’s being an enabler.

He loves us; He’s gracious and compassionate, slow to get angry and lavish in the desire to bless. And so He must deal with sin. Papering over the cracks isn’t going to cut it. If He doesn’t root out the sin itself, we just go on harming ourselves and others. Grace and compassion for the sinned-against as well as justice compels Him to not overlook sin.

So because He is the gracious and compassionate God, He pays the price for us. Not because we deserve it, but because He wants to. Because as well as having the desire to help – compassion – He’s the only one who also has the power. As the old hymn puts it: “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin. He only could unlock the gate of heav’n and let us in”. Others might have had the compassion, but God alone was the All-Powerful I AM who could actually do something about the problem.

If we in our fallenness treat “failure to stop and render aid” as a criminal offence, how much less can God stand by while we suffer in our sin, knowing that He alone has the power to help?

visiting the sins of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generation

Even in His preliminary dealing with sin via the first covenant, He sets limits on how far sin can go. Only to the third and fourth generation, not forever. Some people have read this as “punishing the children for the sins of their fathers to the third and fourth generation”. God denies this specifically in Ezekiel 18, then later Jesus Himself kicks the supports out from under this idea; all those wrong-end-of-stick questions about “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” are decisively set aside by the Lord Jesus as totally wrongheaded. This difficult-to-understand verse, then, must mean something else. But what?

People live in families, and traits are passed down. Sons are like their fathers, and daughters like their mothers. If we’re not very careful to choose different courses, we reproduce in our own lives what was modeled for us by our parents. Therefore, part of the consequence of sin plays out in the lives of our offspring. Not because of some bio-spiritual law of inheritance, but because that’s how families are. If I have the sin of unrighteous anger, and I sow to that in my dealings with my children, I will reap from them unrighteous anger in return. To put it another way, part of the consequence of your sin is that you have to live in a family that does it back to you. This is almost the Divine equivalent of rubbing the dog’s nose in its business when you are training it to use a litter box.

But even in His punishment of sin, our Lord sets limits. He will not visit the sins of the fathers on their children down through all the generations. We are not spiritually fated to reproduce the sins of our unknown 12th-Century ancestors. We are not even spiritually fated to reproduce the sins of our immediate forebears. Sin has consequences, and God is not going to let us get away with it. But there is no fatalism that forces us to follow in the ways of our ancestors. Fatalism is for Muslims. We are followers of Christ.

Notice, too, that this doesn’t appear until way down the list. Normally the things first mentioned in a list are considered the most important; in this case, grace and compassion. This is in accordance with the rest of Scripture: “Mercy triumphs over judgement” and “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Yet there are consequences for sin, and God is not an enabler either. Sin cannot be permitted to endure forever. He will deal with it, because that, too, is who He is.

Blog, son of Blog

I’ve been toying with the idea of a second blog for several months now, ever since I downloaded a free Lego CAD-type program and started building with it. Obviously, I’m going to keep building stuff with my digital Lego, as well as any actual bricks I can get my hands on, and equally obviously, this blog isn’t really set up as an appropriate place to showcase what I build.

But do I really want to get into having multiple blogs?

As it happens, yes.

It’s a new year. Time for new things. I don’t expect to be posting at anything like my normal rate over here on The Word Forge, but as a personal showcase for my Lego building, far better to give it its own forum than to try to do two vastly different things from a single platform. The Word Forge would lose its focus if I tried, and anyone actually interested in my Lego building would have to wade through all of my other content looking for it.

So enter Square Feet, the Lego adventures of a construction worker.

It’s a brand-new blog at the moment, so there’s not much on it as yet. That will change.

Go on, take a look. You know you want to.

The State of the (Other) Union

So Scotland voted to preserve the Union that has served us well since 1707. With 55% voting “no” to independence and 45% “yes” with almost 87% turnout, it has to count as a victory for democracy no matter what your views are on actual independence.

I’m pleased with the result, but I recognise that as an Englishman living in the USA I don’t precisely have any vested interest in the outcome. Still, I have English family that live in Scotland, so I am affected by it, even if only at one remove.

And now the question becomes “where do we go from here?”

The fact that almost half of Scotland’s population voted to separate from the United Kingdom doesn’t exactly speak well of the health of this Union of ours, though the results broken up by locality look more favourable, with only 3 of 32 local councils being carried by the Yes campaign. Personally I’m a little surprised that it wasn’t closer, though the last time I was actually living in Scotland was over a decade ago and close to Glasgow, which was one of the strongest supporters of the independence campaign last night. It’s possible that may be skewing my perceptions.

Watching the campaign from a distance has been quite odd, with most people around me barely even registering the event. Here’s my country possibly on the verge of tearing itself apart (in a wonderfully restrained, peaceable and thoroughly British manner – no violence and no real nastiness), and it barely makes the international segment of the news until there’s an actual result.

I’m pleased with the result, as I said. The Union Jack would look bizarre and unnatural without the St. Andrew’s Cross of Scotland, and I honestly believe that the result is best for Scotland too.

But with the additional devolved powers promised to the subordinate Scottish Parliament if they would stay in the Union, the lid is off the pot of constitutional change.

What of the Welsh and the Northern Irish that have their own Assemblies with more limited powers than the Scottish Parliament? Devolution of greater powers to the Scots ought to take place in a context of wider devolution of powers to the Welsh and Irish, otherwise it’s hardly fair. And what of England, which has no national Assembly or Parliament beyond that of the entire UK, and thus has Scottish and Welsh and Irish MPs voting on matters English but with English MPs having no say in Scottish affairs (the so-called “West Lothian question”)?

I’ve wondered for a while whether Britain wouldn’t make more sense as a sort of federation, but it’s always seemed unthinkable. But then, for a long while the idea of a truly independent Scotland seemed unthinkable too, at least as far as Westminster was concerned.

These days, however, we seem to be thinking the unthinkable, with the very real possibility that the Scots could have decided against remaining in the United Kingdom, promised devolution of powers that would have been anathema a mere decade ago, a similar promise to resolve the West Lothian question and the real possibility of dramatic constitutional reform in the United Kingdom as a whole.

We are living in interesting times, though I hope not in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse. If the several main parties of the UK can’t agree on what should be done, it could turn into the worst political quagmire we’ve seen in Britain, but somehow I can’t quite believe that having so recently dodged the bullet of the dissolution of the United Kingdom that we will stumble at the gate.

I have to say that I think this whole referendum has been good for the United Kingdom as a whole. So much that we didn’t want to talk about in case it triggered something like a Scottish independence referendum has been brought into the open where we can actually talk about it. It’s made is really think about our identity as one nation and as four: as British, but also as Scots and Irish and Welsh and English.

As an Englishman, from the constituent country of the United Kingdom in which we were all carefully brought up to think and speak of ourselves as “British”, not “English” (because English was an exclusive term and we wanted to include the Scots and Welsh and Irish), engendering a manifest confusion over what we really meant by either, I see this as unmitigatedly positive. It took moving abroad for me to personally discover the difference; I’m glad it didn’t take the end of the United Kingdom to produce the same result in England as a whole.

I imagine the process has been a little bit like that in reverse for the Scots and Welsh and Irish. They’ve always seemed to have strong senses of their Scottishness and Welshness and Irishness, though with the exception of the Northern Irish, their sense of Britishness has sometimes been weaker.

Maybe now we can truly understand ourselves as a nation, and that can only be a good thing for us all.

Collision with Immanence

It occurs to me that an awful lot of my recent posts are focused on God’s transcendence. His awesome power and supreme majesty. His greatness and might. His sovereignty.

It’s all completely true; God is sovereign and majestic and great and all-powerful. But it’s only half the story.

The God of the Bible is immanent as well as transcendent. He’s close to us as well as beyond us. It seems to me to be past time I wrote something focusing on that side of the Divine being.

To focus exclusively on God’s immanence is to bring Him down to our level. God is one of us. We take the Biblical idea that Jesus was a man just like us and run with it to almost get the idea that God is therefore just like us in all ways. Someone we can “fall in love” with. Someone we can safely disobey. Someone with faults and foibles and incomplete knowledge.

But to focus exclusively on His transcendence is to fall into the opposite error. God is so great and majestic that He is completely unlike us; He’s like an unstoppable force of nature, concerned with His will being done rather than with our troubles and struggles. Or even if He’s concerned, it’s in the distant way we might be concerned about a mouse or a bug.

When we say that God is Sovereign and all-powerful, this is not what we mean.

Transcendence has to be balanced by immanence if we are to have a truly Biblical view of the Almighty. He’s the One who spoke stars and galaxies into being, who tells gravity which way Down is and who really does know the precise mass and position of every subatomic particle. But He’s also the One who walks with Noah, who lets Himself be talked down by Abraham, who calls Himself “Father”.

I often think we go overboard on the whole “closeness/intimacy” thing, but this, too, is a Biblical truth.

Jesus is Immanuel, God With Us. And even before His coming, the psalmist said that God was “near to all who call on Him”.

I don’t know of another religion that has this idea. Buddhism treats the whole idea of Deity as irrelevant. Hinduism has its transcendent Brahman, so completely Other that even the attribution of personality is considered an anthropomorphism. In Islam God is great, first and foremost. I’ve lived and worked in Muslim countries, and in my experience the idea that God can be close is firstly nonsensical and secondly frightening.

But God reveals Himself as close to us. Sovereign of the universe, and yet He calls Abraham, a mere human, His friend.

His immanence is naturally associated with His love and compassion. Indeed, if He weren’t loving and compassionate, the idea of the All-Powerful and All-Holy drawing near would truly be a thing of terror.

The essence of this revelation of immanence is God’s self-revelation as Father.

Some of us haven’t had a human father that we’ve known. For others of us, the idea of father is wreathed in pain. We didn’t have good relationships with our dads, and the idea of God as Father is tainted by that human expectation that He will be like our earthly male parents.

But like any archetype, the idea of fatherhood is defined by its ideal, not its failures. The idea is one of a protective and caring closeness, a sense of family and identity, a concern and involvement combined with strength. It’s difficult to put into words, but we recognise a good dad when we see one.

God’s Fatherhood is a little like that. Or more accurately, that sort of fatherhood is a little like God’s.

He’s near as well as great and mighty. Father as well as Sovereign.

I think perhaps that I would do well to remember this.

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.

A Different Brand of Manly

There’s a lot of junk propagated in the name of manhood and masculinity. All the old irrelevant cultural expectations, juvenile machismo and chauvinist patriarchalism. You Must Like Sports. You Must Like Tools. You Must Be Good At Fixing Things. You Must Drink Beer In Vast Quantities. You Must Win The Girl. You Must Turn Everything Into A Competition. You Must Keep Your Woman In Her Place.

Crap.

What does liking sports have to do with the possession of a Y chromosome? Why should my ability to repair my car reflect on my masculinity? What does my capacity for alcohol signify except that I drink to excess? Why does being a Real Man apparently have to involve domination and suppression of women?

And why, why, why should my masculinity be threatened by capable womanhood?

Some of this is cultural. Americans seem to have much more of a gender-based division of labour in their expectations. When Heather and I were getting married, I tried to ease the burden of things that she had to do by phoning the florist about our flowers. I knew what we wanted; Heather was busy with 89 other tasks. No problem, right?

Wrong. Bafflingly, the response I got was universally negative. As in “I don’t want to talk to you.” Unhelpful attitudes, in some cases ridiculously so. My wife-to-be phones the same florists – instant warmth and cooperation. Apparently I was trespassing in a “women only” zone.

America has a lot of unmarked single-sex zones. Cars, sports fandom, any repair work, grilling/barbecue; these are masculine zones. Flowers, weddings in general, the kitchen, childcare, cleaning; these are feminine. You will get weird looks if you cross the boundary.

This is why American barbecue grills are such replacement ovens. Men aren’t allowed in the kitchen, either because of exclusion by women or by the disparagement as “unmanly” of their masculine peers.

The pernicious popular American notion of the “man card” plays right into this nonsense. The Man Card, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is the metaphorical certification of True Manhood; the idea being that if you do “unmanly” things, your Man Card can be revoked, or certainly challenged.

It’s all junk, though. There’s nothing about the Y chromosome that fatalistically determines that you will like football, hunting, fishing and shooting, be able to repair things and be incapable of boiling an egg. If you need even a metaphorical card to prove you’re a man, you probably aren’t.

Apparently my masculinity was forged in a different fire.

I don’t like sports, in general. Never really have; as a child I was probably undiagnosed borderline dyspraxic, so I was never any good at them. And It’s difficult to like something you utterly suck at.

My wife’s the sports fan in our household. I’ve learned enough that I can follow her conversations about baseball, but I did that because I love her, not because I love baseball.

I don’t hunt. I have to get up really early in the morning six days a week for my job; the thought of voluntarily doing it on a day when I don’t have to isn’t that pleasant. Also, I work outside in the heat and the bugs; why would I want to do that on a day when I don’t have to just on the off-chance that I could make a deer go boom?

I don’t fish, either. I’m a redhead, with a redhead’s natural tendency to burn in the woods on a cloudy day. I wear so much sunscreen that I can taste it for most of the evening some days, long after I’ve got home and showered. The thought of sitting for hours on end out on the highly-reflective water with nothing between me and that fiery orb but God’s blue heaven is actually painful.

And I don’t shoot. I don’t hunt for the aforementioned reasons, and I have personal issues as a believer with guns for self-defence. That seems to take away the two main reasons for investing the time and money in learning to shoot.

I’m not particularly good at repairing things. I can do a few things on the car if I need to, but I have little interest in it for its own sake. Cooking is more fun.

I think machismo is juvenile and insecure, and patriarchalism is one of the results of the Fall.

So I don’t really fit much of the American masculine stereotype. And yet I’m fully secure in my masculine identity. I have, in my mind, nothing to prove.

People have asked me why this should be.

Part of it is that I channel a different masculine archetype. America loves the Man of Action: Superman, the Lone Ranger, the high school athlete, the military man. Britain tends more to the cerebral: Sherlock Holmes is a hero because of his brain, not his brawn. Robin Hood was a man of wit and skill more than muscle and strength; that role was taken by Little John.

In Greek mythological terms, I always preferred Theseus as a hero over Hercules. The wily Odysseus was in my personal pantheon of childhood heroes, not the arrogant and petulant Achilles.

In Lord of the Rings terms, I wanted to be Gandalf or Aragorn rather than the straightforward warrior Boromir. In Star Wars, Yoda or Obi-Wan.

In short, I gravitate to the Man of Lore, not the Man of Action. And even the heroes that go both ways I tend to interpret with a heavy weighting in that direction.

But I’ve come to realise that this is only part of the answer to why I can be so secure in my masculinity when surrounded by a culture that doesn’t define manhood in those terms.

CS Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has a little exchange in it between Caspian and Ramandu’s daughter which serves as an apt illustration of why this should be.

Caspian says “In the world my friends come from, there is a story. In it, the prince must kiss the princess in order to dissolve the enchantment.”

“Ah, but here it is different,” Ramandu’s daughter replies. “Here he must dissolve the enchantment before he can kiss the princess.”

Most of us men seem to unconsciously assume that we are in the story of the Sleeping Beauty. That the act of kissing the princess (winning the heart of the woman, as it were) is what dissolves the enchantment of lies we believe about our masculinity. In some cases, it may be that it does. But not in mine.

I had to dissolve the enchantment before I could kiss the princess.

I had a period of a few short months through which I was taken on an inner journey into the depths of my own sense of masculine identity, to confront the lies I had believed about what it is and where it comes from.

I had to deconstruct all of the lies that “Real Men do thus-and-so” and come to the realisation that culture really shouldn’t be defining my sense of manhood at all.

As long as I let some physical trait or thing I do define my masculinity, I am held hostage to it. If my sense of masculinity is rooted in liking sports, or motor repair, or beer consumption, or getting the girl, or some mistaken sense of positional authority vis-à-vis my wife, I will be insecure and react to anything that undermines those things as a threat.

These things are not the roots of manhood, despite what advertisers and our culture would have us believe. My masculinity is rooted in the image of God, just like my wife’s femininity. How that expresses itself is as diverse as the full spectrum of human personality and culture.

And having dissolved the enchantment of lies about my manhood, I was then able to kiss the princess.

However, let the reader understand that I don’t mean “princess” in the vapid Disney sense but in the powerful mediæval sense in which all independent rulers, no matter their individual title, were “princes”.

So I find nothing remotely threatening to in the fact that my wife is at least as capable as I am. Why on earth should I?

I’m more secure in my manhood than to be disurbed by the idea of eating pink ice cream (ridiculous as it sounds, I’ve had friends raise eyebrows and treat it like it’s unusual). Are we really that insecure, men?

When I paint a picture of flowers, I paint manly flowers, because my painting (including subject matter) flows out of who I am rather than determining it.  I am free to pick up my wife’s handbag to bring it to her without diminishing my masculinity, because it is defined from within, not by actions.  I’m free of all that immature crap.

In short, I don’t need a Man Card, because God says I don’t have anything to prove in that regard. If I can stretch the point a little, it’s rather like the second temptation of Christ, to throw himself down from the Temple. If the first temptation (stones into bread) was about whether Jesus was going to depend on God or himself for his being, the second was about proving it. Ok, you’re trusting God, are you? Prove He cares. Prove He’s really got your back.

Jesus answered: “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to a foolish test'”.

I know He cares for me and I don’t need to prove it.

It’s rather like that with our sense of manhood. My masculinity is rooted in His image. He says I’m a man, and I don’t need to prove it.

Really.

In the Sixties, women burned their bras as an expression of liberation from the oppressive and lopsided expectations placed on their gender. It may be time we men do the same with our man cards. It is, after all, the same sort of thing.

If you’re not a man without a card that says so (even a metaphorical one), then you aren’t a man just because you have one.