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?

The Prodigal Father

I related to American depictions of the father/child relationship a lot more as a child than I do as a dad.

Americans, it seems, are obsessed with this relationship. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Ariel and King Triton. Gru and his girls. The dad in The LEGO Movie. And it’s all the same story.

The father is aloof and cold. Or actively cruel and heartless. Or overbearing. Or a fool. Or simply overprotective. Or not there at all. Vader is actively evil. Gru is cold. Triton is overbearing and overprotective. Green Lantern is absent. Even the parents in Frozen lock their daughter up “for her own good”.

This can’t be how American dads actually behave; I know too many good ones. Surely they can’t all be exceptions; if they are, it makes America seem downright scary. Where are the fathers who are actively involved in their kids’ lives? Who encourage their kids to explore and be creative? Who are actually competent? Who, get this, act like real Dads?

British media don’t obsess about the father/child relationship in the same way. You might see a dad who’s a fool, but the focus is usually on the dysfunction between him and his wife, not between him and his children. Being a sap with his kids is incidental.

No, it’s just American media that obsess about the relationship.

The PBS Kids show Sid the Science Kid seems to be a lone exception to this. Sid’s Dad is competent on his own ground (he’s a construction worker, not an intellectual), present in the family, loves his wife and kids, is actively involved in their lives, is not afraid to defer to his wife’s expertise in areas of her competency, and encourages his children to explore. But Sid’s dad seems an almost solitary light in the paternal darkness of US film and TV. Gru in Despicable Me 2 is pretty good, but he acts more like a playmate than a father, and we had to see him become Good Dad in the first movie.

And a whole lot of everything else is dysfunction.

More, it’s all the dad’s fault. Always. Vader must be brought to the light side. Gru’s heart must be changed. Triton must let his daughter swim and be free. The dad in the LEGO Movie must awaken to his son’s creativity and stop being so controlling. The child may be rebellious, a runaway, a disgrace, but it was their father who drove them to it. They were just trying to express Who They Really Are. As a dad, it’s… uncomfortable.

We can see that it’s the dad’s fault, because itVs the dad that has to repent. The child may have to make some sort of surface “apology” for running away or “letting you down” or whatever, but it’s the father who has to truly repent. Show me a scenario in American media where it’s the child who has to grow up, repent and change. No; this is for the Dad to do.

As a child with a not-entirely-working relationship with my own dad, this was great news! I didn’t need to do anything; it was his fault!

As a man, I’ve come to realise that my dad was right a lot more than I cared to admit back then. Characterising it as All His Fault isn’t fair. I contributed to the mess.

I’ve become a dad now. I know a lot of dads. They aren’t like this media picture. I don’t think I’m like this.

If this isn’t a real reflection of the real state of American families, and I don’t believe it is, what is going on here?

Personally I blame the American War of Independence.

Yeah, it’s easy for me to come in as a Brit and blame everything on the piece of American history that I still can’t quite get my heart around. But put the Thirteen Colonies in the role of the child and Britain in the role of the father and the two are one and the same. Britain may be a motherland, when we think of her at all that way, but here, we are the Father. The Authority, with a capital “A”.

In this context, the child has to be right because the child is America. The father has to be demonstrably cruel and overbearing, because that justifies the child’s actions. The child isn’t being an uncontrollable rebellious brat in dire need of loving discipline in order to become who they can be, they’re just expressing Who They Really Are Right Now. They need to be Understood and Accepted, and everything will magically become OK.

I don’t know if this is really what’s going on, but it explains a lot. This is the story in most American writers’ hearts because America itself feels like their “dad” Britain Just Doesn’t Get It.

But it leaves me with questions. If this is really the case, what do you want from us, America? The Revolutionary War wasn’t entirely the fairy tale you envisage. The “evil British tyrants” weren’t doing things just to be cruel, any more than the American colonists were rebelling because they were ungrateful scoundrels who thought that everything revolved around them.

America is a grown-up nation however that happened. We don’t (seriously) hold the Revolutionary War against you. I have a hard time around the Fourth not because I’m carrying a grudge but because I have a secret fear that you still might be: Paul Revere still rides through a dozen newspaper comins. Hollywood still treats an English accent as evidence of villainy. Even your national anthem subtly paints us as the bad guy shooting rockets at the heroic American defenders of liberty.

The job of a father is to raise their child to become an independent adult. America is an independent adult nation. Maybe this year I can celebrate that fact without unleashing my “but you still think we’re villains!” fear.

Maybe this year I can find a way to love the USA even on the Fourth of July that doesn’t make me feel like I’m expected to believe that I am a tyrant and the son of tyrants.

Maybe I can stand blinking in the dawn’s surly light and truly celebrate the independence of a free nation under God.

I’ll keep trying.

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.

Largesse (Chivalric Virtues series)

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


Probably the one of the knight Roland’s chivalric vows (from the Mediæval Song of Roland) that intrigues me the most is the vow “to despise pecuniary reward”.

This fairly closely matches my own attitude, but it’s scarcely a common one, particularly in our modern business- and entrepreneurship-worshipping culture.

The idea of payment is central to our Western democratic Capitalism: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. The wealth of nations. The law of supply and demand. Entrepreneurship – the idea that you can start a new business and make good money doing it, and that that is always and only a good thing – is deeply embedded in American culture.

And it’s alien to me.

Not because of some transatlantic difference, but because of me. I’m what I describe as an “economics atheist” – I don’t believe in the worship of money. Not only that, but I mistrust and do not like the avaricious impulse that seems to be at the heart of it all.

When I was in Central Asia, my first language teacher gave me the local name Zhomart. Names in the local culture are almost as significant as they are in the Bible, and most of the time, when the locals rename a foreigner the name is very apt. The literal meaning of Zhomart is “generous”, and for a long time I puzzled over why this would be deemed so apt. My best friend (whose local name translated to “wing” and carried the connotation of support) excelled much more than I in the grace of giving. We joked a few times that we needed to switch names – he was the generous one, and I… Well, I wing it.

Looking at the Mediæval idea of largesse, however, and in particular the knight Roland’s peculiar vow, I’m struck by how very appropriate the name is. I don’t really care about making money. As long as I have enough, and so far I do, I’m really not that concerned with getting more.

This is perhaps not quite the true thrust of the vow, but the attitude of opposition to Mammon and holding worldly wealth lightly is certainly allied. The idea of despising pecuniary reward means not doing things with the idea of getting paid. Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because you’re going to get something out of it. The distinction being drawn is between the knight and the mercenary.

The knight is supposed to fight for what’s right. The mercenary will fight for whoever pays them.

The knight is concerned with honour. The mercenary is concerned with payment.

The knight fights for the welfare of all. The mercenary fights for the welfare of self.

The knight wants to serve. The mercenary wants to get rich.

The mercenary impulse seems overwhelmingly common in this day and age. The stock market dominates all. Buying and selling of goods, services, time and information transcend national boundaries and make the world what it is.

There’s nothing wrong with getting paid for what you do, but the Kingdom of God (and the knightly code, too) operates on a higher level than buying and selling.

The generous attitude of largesse stands opposed to the avaricious and mercenary impulses. Star Trek’s Ferengi, with their “Rules of Acquisition”, sum up the mercenary impulse; the First Rule is “once you have their money, you never give it back”.

Frankly, I find Klingons easier to understand. The whole business of acquisitiveness seems somehow… sordid. My view of money is more that it’s a necessary evil than that it’s a good thing in itself.

It’s a very knightly attitude, but I’m unlikely to ever get rich.

I’m fully aware that my attitude is fairly extreme, and probably unrealistic on a large scale, but I do think we could all do with a bit more largesse.

What would the world look like if corporations were a little more concerned with doing the right thing than doing the profitable thing? What would it be like if we could stop being afraid of not having enough? What would happen if we learned contentment when we have enough rather than a continual desire for more?

Largesse, simply defined, is open-handedness. It resists the thinking of the modern corporate world that “money isn’t the most important thing – it’s the only thing”. There’s nothing wrong with having money, or getting paid. But money is a terrible master even if you have it, and it’s one of the few things that can get a hold of you without you getting a hold of it.

Even on the left side of the political spectrum, we often act as though money is everything. What is the redistribution of wealth but an attempt to use money to fix all our problems? I find it instructive that the one false god we never put a name to is the only one that Jesus named: Mammon. Mammon is the opposite of largesse; the idea that “money is the only thing” or that “only money can make things happen” or that “only money can help”. Trust in the almighty dollar rather than the Almighty God.

Largesse is generosity, the cure for covetousness and avarice and the cause of thankfulness. Holding wealth lightly, able to give where needed, and not seeking payment as an end in itself.

Payment, of course comes in multiple forms, and coin is not the only currency there is. The mercenary impulse also manifests in a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mindset that can result in false expectations or a reciprocal rather than generous outlook.

In our teaching on husbands and wives, we’re often told that “men need respect, women need love”.  Like, men don’t also need love, and women don’t also need respect?  Or the idea that “men give love for sex, and women give sex for love”. The idea often comes across, even in Christian teachings, that when a husband does something nice for his wife, like helping with the housework or buying her flowers or something, that she’s supposed to reciprocate in the bedroom.  (If I hadn’t heard it myself, I’d think this was a straw man argument, but…)

While it’s true that no wife is going to feel interested in sex on a Saturday night if you’ve been being a jerk to her all week, the reciprocity at the heart of this idea bothers me.

Actually, that’s putting it mildly. I think it’s in danger of turning our wives into whores. If we have an expectation that they will do something nice for us in the bedroom if we do something nice for us around the house, how is that not sex for payment?

Man up, guys. You signed on to an equal partnership when you got married, and part of that is doing your share. Caring for your wife. Doing nice things for her because you love her, not for some kind of payment. Giving her the respect she deserves (Proverbs 31:31). Largesse in the marriage relationship.  Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing.

It’s part of being a man by the code of chivalric virtues.

Historically, the Mediæval planet Sol, the sun, was associated with largesse and liberality. Solar deities were often associated with dragon-slaying, and in the Western tradition dragons hoarded gold and gems. If dragons personify Mammon and greed, the dragon-slaying Sol is appropriate for the opposition to Mammon characterised by the virtue of largesse. Let us, like the sun, not hold onto our “light” but shed it abroad, freely giving as we have freely received.

Follow

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

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

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

Huh?

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

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

The implications are twofold:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.