The Temple of Mars

In commenting on my friend Luke Skytrekker’s recent post, in which he wickedly skewered the whole military-industrial profiteering machine, I drew out one of my points of comparison between the US and my native UK: namely that “America seems to be culturally more inclined to worship at the temple of Mars than the UK does” (I’m paraphrasing myself).

I’ve talked about this as a point of difference before (at least twice), so I don’t especially want to do another “compare and contrast” exercise as the focus of this post. But the comment, together with some of the things Luke said, got me thinking. (Luke, you dangerous man, you. Look what you’ve started! :P)

I live in Texas, in the heart of the South’s Bible Belt, surrounded by people who consider themselves staunch Christians and who would probably be shocked at the notion of worshipping Mars. That’s, like, a pagan god. We’re Christians, don’t you know?

That’s not quite what I mean, and most people will get that, but better I say it unnecessarily than cause needless offence.

I’m using Mars here as a convenient symbolic handle for war and warlikeness, martial vices and virtues and all the cultural aspects of America that reflect them. And I can see quite a few; I’m not kidding when I talk about cultural worship of Mars.

Firstly and most obviously, there’s the guns. Now, I know I have a bit of a thing with firearms – specifically I have problems with the idea of taking the life of another person – someone for whom my Saviour gave His life, but anyone will tell you that the United States of America is a resolutely weaponed country. The Second Amendment, and all that.

As someone who still doesn’t really believe in an unrestricted inherent right to possess tools of killing, the American love of stuff that makes other people go boom is a rather uncomfortable aspect of US culture. Even when you have no intention of actually killing anyone or anything, many of you target shoot for sport. Bearing arms is what separates the warrior from everyone else, and the United States is the only country I’ve ever been in that specifically delineates this as an inherent right of the citizen. It’s distinctly Martian.

The USA was even born in war. Well I know this, having just survived another Fourth of July as a Brit in America. The American Revolutionary War forms a powerful common popular-historical source of imagery which has no parallel in the land of my birth. We Brits may have a lot more history, but with the possible partial exception of the Battle of Britain or the Blitz, there isn’t any single time period that even comes close to providing a comparable source of universally positive imagery and references. America, born in revolution, midwifed by battle. We’re definitely in Mars’ metaphysical territory here.

Then there’s the current cult of extreme reverence for veterans and military service. Now, there’s something healthy and positive about honouring those who have laid their lives on the line for King and Country (or whatever you Americans lay it on the line for. Constitution, maybe), but I do wonder sometimes if we aren’t in danger of taking things too far. Failing to properly honour veterans seems like the cardinal sin of the current secular pantheon, to the extent that some of our preferment of veterans sometimes seems almost idolatrous.

Mars, I’m sure, is very happy, but I do sometimes wonder what it has to do with the Prince of Peace that so many claim to follow.  I’m sure there’s some historical reason for this, possibly in reaction to the way soldiers were treated after Vietnam, but I’m just waving a yellow flag of caution here.

It goes deeper than surface expressions like the prominence of the Revolutionary War or the love of weapons, though. Americans, as I said in my post during the last Olympic Games, love a contest and will turn anything and everything into a competition. It’s hardwired into the American psyche: the competitive drive to prove oneself faster, stronger, bigger, richer, more powerful, better than one’s opponent. The ancient Greeks called it aristeia, the challenge of single combat between two great warrior heroes, such as between Hector and Achilles in the Trojan War. I’ve referred to it as the Cult of the Winner; the American psychological need for success and victory. It doesn’t matter how you get there; if you’ve made it to the top you’ve earned it, you obviously deserve to be there. Even if you cheat or engage in dirty, gutter tactics, there’s a certain amount of shrugging of shoulders and telling people not to be crybaby losers. It’s the pursuit of victory, probably at all costs.

Not only in the ends of American culture is Mars raised on a pedestal, but also in the means. Mars is rather a god of means: he’s indifferent to his ends, whether the triumph of truth and justice or the plundering of the poor and the liar made lord; he’ll work his bloody, competitive work just as hard for the one as the other. In the thought of the Middle Ages, associated as he was with the planet that still bears his name and the astrological influences it was believed to possess, Martian virtue was a sort of hard, determined courage to do whatever is needed to achieve the goal.

Americans express this virtue in terms of personal drive: “I’m a very driven person”, they say, meaning nothing but positive. You can see it in Christ when He “set His face like flint to go toward Jerusalem”, knowing it meant His arrest and crucifixion, but classically speaking it’s the virtue of Mars. Harnessed rightly and directed towards a Godly end, it’s a glorious virtue that makes possible the facing of adversity and persecution, enabling the martyr to follow in the Lord’s footsteps in the silently courageous suffering of a sheep before its shearers. Ill-harnessed to an ungodly or purely human end, its fruit is a certain hard ruthlessness that will go full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes, prepared to sacrifice resources or family or virtue or truth or whatever on the altar of its ambition.

This is the character of Mars. And America has it full strength; tell me if I’m wrong.

I even see a sort of Martian process-orientation, indifferent to ends, in America’s incredible technological ingenuity. The focus on capability rather than ethical or metaphysical considerations has made the USA home to more inventions and breakthroughs and ingenious devices than anyone could conveniently count, indifferent to their potential uses and abuses. Mars in a good way, but also Mars’ weaknesses and disquieting nature.

Mars’ ancient astrological symbol is used by modern biologists to denote the male of a species, just as Venus’ is used to denote the female. This is interesting, because more than anywhere else in the Western world, American culture seems a prisoner of the old futile stereotypes of masculinity. The stupid, hairy, swaggering near-thuggery. The apparent need to “keep the woman in her place”. The old lie that “big boys don’t cry”, the despite of seeming weakness, the divorcement of the man from his emotions. The endless focus on physical strength. Nowhere else in the West are boys still encouraged to “grow up big and strong”. As if mere strength alone makes you a worthy human being.

The true God, the Creator and Lord of the Universe, we are told, did not choose the strong, but He chose the weak, the lowly, the despised. “Bigness” and “Strength” and “Victory” or success in worldly terms may even be a stumbling-stone and hindrance to seeing the power of God released in us. After all, God refused to use Gideon’s army until it was pared down to the 300 dog soldiers who lapped.

Mars has virtues as well as vices. Courage, determination, endurance. Medieval thought made the Sphere of Mars the heaven of martyrs, both because those who achieve a martyr’s crown usually die by violence, but also due to a mistaken linguistic connection between “martyros” and “Mars”. It takes courage, determination, discipline, persistence – all Mars’ qualities – to face persecution or oppose tyranny. The tyrant may plead “necessity” for his cruelties and abuses, but that doesn’t mean there are not sometimes real necessities that require Mars’ virtue harnessed to Divine justice and mercy.

I personally love most of the old martial hymns; they resonate with me on a level that most of the more recent “intimate” worship songs using Venusian love language do not. But the words are “Marching as to war”, not “marching to war”. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, and while it is an epic struggle for which we will need all of Mars’ virtue, it’s not anything to do with real physical war or the massive industrial complex that both feeds and is fed by it.

As a follower of the Prince of Peace, I believe we should be slow to reach for the sword, particularly in anger. There are just causes for which to wage war, but we should remember always Whose we are. We serve the “Lord of Peace/Whose pow’r a sceptre sways/From pole to pole, that wars may cease/And all be prayer and praise”. When we needs must fight, we do so without sacrificing honour or losing ourselves. In the end, Mars too has to bow before the true Mighty Warrior.

When a Knight Won His Spurs

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

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

When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old

He was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold

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

For God and for valour he rode through the land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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