I vaguely remember a coming of age ceremony done in my church by a couple of the dads with their teenage sons. They read some book about chivalry and Christian knighthood and at the end of it held a knighting ceremony in some suburban park gazebo. I picture a teen there, kneeling in polo and khaki shorts, receiving his sword of spirit. (It was a literal sword.) Now, it’s not very nice of me to make fun of the excellent intentions of good Christian men. Every culture needs to have rites of passage–especially for its men, who don’t have menarche. It is completely commendable of those men to look around and say, Hey, We Don’t Take Manhood Seriously Enough.
What’s cool is that the son got a sword out of the deal. But just everything else about such a process (in the cartoon form that I remember it) screams absurdity and irrelevance. Why not make him study bushido and turn him into a samurai at the end of it? At this point, I’d say the samurai has about as much cultural relevance to 21st century suburban america as the knight does. Ah, but knights are Christian, you say. Knights are from the West. The Tradition.
That still doesn’t mean it’s a good thing to bring back, or that they really belong here. Knights only exist within our American culture in how we have appropriated their designs and ideals to sell stories and images to the masses. There is little functional difference between them, samurai, cowboys, and superheroes, in that we all only understand them fictionally, romantically. Those last two archetypes of virtue are at least American and quite recent in origin. There is nothing in this age that necessitates being a knight, in the sense of being an armored warrior sworn as a vassal to a feudal lord, and so it is awkward and trite to try to decorate your son with a knight aesthetic when you really just want him to be a good man and a good Christian.
But wait! Swearing allegiance–isn’t that a good thing? After all, we aren’t swearing ourselves to some sinful temporal authority. That would be a horrible idea; why intentionally make ourselves slaves when we could enjoy the liberty God has given us? Instead, we swear ourselves to the lordship of Christ, a perfect ruler who will never lead us to sin. Is it not true that we are his warriors? Pursuing a kind of spiritual knighthood then becomes a way of taking an abstract principle and grounding it in specific historical images and cultural designs. Isn’t that a good thing?
Yes, I just want those designs to actually be proportional to how we Christians in America live our lives. Who are knights to you? Were your fathers knights? Has there been an unbroken line of knightly tradition in your family? Doubt it. The only tradition in my family over the centuries is crime and poverty and, most recently, Christianity. I have no noble lineage, no honest craft to inherit, no blood, no skills. You actually might, but let’s assume you’re a suburban lout like me descended from poor pagan people. Does the Great Tradition of the Knight seem appealing to you? A chance to pursue something noble and great and historical and romantic, to lift you out of the banality of suburban life?
Do you know what knights actually did? They were rapists, dude. The whole point of being a knight is to do violence for the sake of someone else’s profit. We know from Hemingway what monks get up to at night, but at least the sin of monks are constrained to themselves. We know from history that both monks and knights were capable of sin and indulgence, but at least we have monks among the saints. Let’s say Bede was the ideal monk who lived out his vocation for the glory of the Lord. The ideal knight–Galahad–might be more of a romantic picture, but he is also considerably more fictional. Real knights, unfortunately, killed people. Nevertheless, the goliards can’t be ignored. Really, all of these human legacies–monk, knight, cowboy–are stained by human imperfections, but all contain ideals that can be used to inspire, discipline, and point our very specific lives in very specific ways towards Christ. Even knights!
But of all these types only the monk is still with us and perhaps the only thing we need more of. Not that we need less people to get married; we just need more single, lonely people to get real with God. We don’t need more singles; we need more people who happen to be singles to turn away from all the shyness and ugliness and selfishness that have kept them single and instead devote their lives to Christ, to live according to a discipline of constant singing and prayer and labor in a brotherhood devoted to Christ–all things which I can guarantee you have been missing in their life. That’s what I think we need more. I don’t think we need any more knights. Perhaps there is room for a knight in the sense of a disciplined warrior poet… but warrior in what way?
Obviously this gets us thinking about the sword and capital punishment and just war and whatnot. As I understand it so far, temporal authority is not something for which Christians should grasp. It greatly increases your opportunity to harm others through your sin; the more power you have, the more consequences. However, I am not convinced that gaining more power in any way increases your ability to love and serve people–though you might be tempted otherwise, Boromir. Rather, the way we serve more people is by giving ourselves up more and more, grasping nothing but what is given to us (gift or obligation) by God. In this way nothing we do has the potential to harm more and more people, but can only possibly bring others closer to God. Marriage or fatherhood, then, is a temporal authority, and one that increases your ability to harm another. It is not something to be grasped at hungrily, but instead received gratefully from God. Government is a sacred task taken up only by the worst men. Has Machiavelli taught you nothing? Only the most ruthless can achieve the most power, and this is fine. It is God’s grace to us that the ruthless ascend. Their ruthlessness leads to great evils, like war, but that war and that ruthlessness is also the means by which any nation or any empire or any culture continues to exist. Has Thucydides taught you nothing? The immoral men are better leaders. It is God’s grace to us that he twists their wickedness into something that creates peace. It allows us to keep playing with our shadow cultures. The government is satanic and satanic is useful because God sits in the heavens and laughs as he locks powers against one another. Nevertheless, I don’t think that game is for Christians to play; only God is going to come out of it holy.
But what about dominion? Aren’t we rulers of creation? We were meant for power! Especially Christians, because we are the most righteous AND destined rulers of creation for eternity. So seizing power now just seems reasonable; anything less is abdication. But I would disagree; aside from the Christian part, as HUMANS, dominion is an obligation that we’ve consistently failed right from the garden. So, As Christians, the only right option is to surrender that dominion to Christ and be open to how he parcels it out. (The only way to know how he is parceling it is to actually be in a relationship with him through prayer.) He is the Lord and we are the tenants.
Of course, we are no longer in a feudal society, so power works a bit differently. So let’s talk in terms of cultural capital or fame. Advertising is a kind of power grab of people’s attention, and I think there are many ways in which it is unchristian because you are lying about your product being worthwhile. It isn’t. It is also ugly, and distracting. Word of mouth is the only reasonable way to advertise; this way, if it is good, it will be shared. If it is not good, it will be ignored. Who shares pointless things by word of mouth? Do pointless things remain in the tradition? Artifacts of distraction (made by Christians or not) propagate themselves through advertising techniques because they cannot spread in a more sterile enviornment. Advertising techniques only exist to steal away your attention from things that organically held it to begin with. Of course, if we dismantle the system of advertising, if only on an individual level by separating ourselves from the system–from the internet, from television–how are we to learn about anything? This is why schools exist. What is a teacher but someone who can tell you what books you should be reading? In this sense we are not separating ourselves from the world entirely but rather from condensed folly, and instead turning and entering into the historical conversation, the Tradition. The Tradition, of course, being human works piled on top of each other, is also condensed folly, but it still makes you a better human. All culture is trash, and this is the best of the trash. These are the gifts to us that we need to be receiving. We need to stop clogging the airwaves of our brains with senseless nonsense (either produced or mindlessly accepted from The Satanic World System aka the internet) and turn our attention to more refined, sensible nonsense. Again, this is why we need monks; people who are going to sift through the junkyards of history and pull out treasures. But remember that our heroic archetypes should be rooted in proportionality and what is actually necessary in our time and place. We don’t need monks to copy works or illuminate manuscripts because we can have robots do that now. But we do need learned godly people to sift through the Great Ever Evolving Book of Satan (aka the Internet) and find the truth amidst all of the rage and lust and condemnation and NOISE. It’s all shadows, so what are the best shadows? It is helpful to have images that point us to Christ. This is why icons are a good idea, by the way–for decorating, not for venerating!!!
The question becomes, then: can the school exist without advertising or the internet? Can great things exist without more ephemeral things to support them? I don’t know. So we shouldn’t be too quick to judge people who do advertise and craft the ephemeral. All of our cultural endeavours, when rooted in love, while inherently imperfect and veined with sin, are good gifts that we can give to others, regardless of vocation. They necessitate extrabiblical endeavours in the sense that all of our lives, though based on the scripture, advance out of it into the world. They necessitate extrabiblical cultural designs, like the idea of a monk, that help us understand what virtue looks like in a very specific context not found in scripture. These fraternities and archetypes and rules (whether a monastery or a guild or anything) are, again, veined with sin. They are the Law. They are the fasts of the flesh and the diets of mind. Don’t eat this, do this, don’t do this on the sabbath, go to church on Sunday, do what he says, don’t do what he says. The Christian is free from these things, but these things nevertheless point to Christ. They are not universal regulations but instead are gifts to be taken up in certain times and places in order to fully appreciate God’s gifts and love him.
Such temporal things cannot replace the light and love of Christ but are the shadows of the thing to come. These are images of eternity. What else are we suppose to spend our lives and invest our talents, then, if loving others doesn’t mean teaching the gospel and building imperfect human things for imperfect humans? Jesus, after all, has spent the majority of his rule as a carpenter; in his youth, before he began his ministry, he was building homes or furniture or whatever for people, because that was the craft given to him by his earthly father and that’s what people needed. And in the millennia after his resurrection, he has been preparing a house for us. He is not just a teacher but a builder. Our heroes, I think, still follow that pattern. Who are our saints, after all, here where there are no martyrs? Teachers and builders, because that is what is needed.
So then we do have Christian models of sacrifice today to emulate. If we can’t emulate the monks or the knights or the zany saints of the middle ages, we can at least root for C.S. Lewis, right? Just as the human vocation of Jesus can in one way be divided into teaching and building, so also can the Christian vocation. But they are spectrums Which Are Not Hermetically Sealed.
The first spectrum has to do with Publishing, and people who use technology to teach. Evangelicals love people who publish. Now, this can start on a more trivial end. Here you have the moral journalists, who every day are pumping out Great Content to be Shared on Social Media. These are the Matt Walshes and Rod Drehers, even unto the Doug Wilsons and pastors with blogs. These guys want to be heroes. They want to speak out for what’s right. So I don’t want to trivialize their work, especially because they’ve already done it for me. But with that said, I think people like this are doing an extremely valuable task–especially if you count Premium Content Creators like the Babylon Bee, who we can all acknowledge as a cultural gift from God. The problem with this type of Christian internet hero is the classic “multitude of words, sin is not absent” problem. The only way to succeed in the Internet Power Attention Game (of Satan) is to be writing constantly, and saying many things, many of which are going to be foolish, needlessly provocative, controversial, irritating, unfounded, and generally useless other than to make a certain demographic feel mildly entertained or affirmed in their beliefs. I appreciate Doug Wilson and Rod Dreher. But they are also brand pushers, and if you have to push a brand that hints that your work is not as good as it should be. But, it also shows a broader systemic problem where we don’t have proper access to Things That Are Actually Worth While, or, the Tradition, or, Education. This is a problem that both Doug and Rod are aware of and want to fix, and for this I am very grateful. So what it comes down to is that you have good guys getting themselves into trouble because they are stuck in a really unhelpful system. Isn’t that the story of Christianity?
But here’s the thing. I don’t think they have to be as stuck as they are. We can move down the spectrum and get to the heroes who have published denser, less ephemeral works. More important? Hm. When we move down the spectrum, we arrive at the Academics and Apologists and Writers of Literature. These are the C.S. Lewises, the people who we can look back upon fondly and say, ah, yes, hero, someone who has made something Actually Wortwhile, who should be entered into the Tradition. Their work is free of pop muck and modern twaddle. It shows me God and the world and the human and it is delightful. Does the existence of Lewises negate the work of the moral journalists? I don’t think so, not entirely. It’s just that books have been around for a while and there are systems of hearts in place that make sure you read C.S. Lewis, because it is good for you. They make you read Lewis because they love you. But where are the systems that tell us which blogs we should be reading because it is good for love? The only system we have is the Babylon Rabble Ramble Short Attention Span System that is the Internet (of Satan). I think until we work out a better way of helpfully sharing words online, the efforts of moral journalists are going to be working against themselves in so many ways. They want to teach, they want to preach, but what they grasp is out of reach… in part, at least.
This hero-type of the teacher is one very close to me. I am thankful that my Dad is a teacher and preacher, because I don’t need to be the first one in my line to figure stuff out if I want to be a teacher (which I do). I have one generation above me in that specific craft; some have none, some have many. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I was fully my father’s apprentice because there was no tradition or expectation of me to follow in those steps. So I wasn’t paying attention to things I should have been. So I’ve squandered quite a bit of time to learn. So I will probably never have the “power” or the “influence” in my teaching and shadow-weaving that I would like. But that’s okay. As long as I love God, a life of virtue, skill, and Christian heroism is still possible for me.
Then we have the other hero type: the builders. These, I think, are on the one end of the spectrum the Wendell Berrys and Front Porch Republics of the world–again, like, the moral journalists, a bit controversial, but unlike the moral journalists mostly ignored because their work is not word-based. (Really, it seems the only thing to which we pay attention are words, and even then…) These are the folks advocating that Christians need to focus on the humans and communities closest to them. I’m supportive, because they realize big problems in the system of our society; but what I’m not sure is whether that systemic problem can be effectively fought by neighborhood hospitality. Like the moral journalists they have to wrestle with how ineffective their efforts might actually be. Nevertheless, if they are actually sharing the love of Christ, there is hope. That is the advantage I think the localists have over the moral journalists: when it comes down to it, it’s a lot easier to share love through hospitality than through blogging. (I’m not talking of individual people so much as roles or tactics that people are taking to shape culture; many of the moral journalists are committed to this kind of hospitality.) When you take this mentality of “building a space” out of general ephemeral daily life and make it more dense, you get the Francis Schaeffer and L’abri (or Davenant House) type projects, where people aren’t trying to take on daily community but build temporary spaces for focused interaction and contemplation.
Overall, you have to wonder if any of these efforts are going to do any good. They will, because God is gracious, but some things won’t work out, because people are selfish. It’s a lot easier to appreciate the people who have done really focused works like C.S. Lewis and his books or Francis Schaeffer and L’abri. The people doing the more ephemeral work are much easier to criticize, but who am I to judge true effectiveness? If they are doing the work of love God has given them, then it doesn’t matter whether it is unrefined, refined, local, or global. The point is that we need to be thoughtful about virtue, about our human heroes, about the work of the saints here on earth. Power and culture are confusing things. I find it easiest to talk about it in terms of prayer and worship: is this thing that I consume wasting time I could spend praying, or is it leading me to pray better? Is this person leading me into distraction, or into worship?
We need order, prayer, worship, labor, and total devotion to God. That’s why I like the image of the monk. I think lifelong vows are absurd and unbiblical. Rather, I think monkhood should be the practice of a season. It is a realization that, for a long time, you have been ignoring the Lord your God, and that you owe him a great deal of order, prayer, worship, and labor in your life. How can you receive the good gifts of God if you block your ears and blind your eyes? That is what I have done; that is what America has done. That is why we need some heroic monks.