John Richardson reflects on what it means to be a man of God’s word and why the virtues of manliness are more readily associated with Islam than with Christianity
A theme I was asked to consider recently was ‘Being men of Gods word.’ What, then, does it mean to be a man of God’s word? What is special – what indeed is specific – about being a man from a Christian point of view?
In the closing verses of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians [16.13] is an exhortation which was once famous in the English language for its force and brevity in the King James’ Version, ‘Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men…’
To the modern ear, however, ‘quit yourself like a man does not make clear sense. The modern sense of the word ‘quit’ is to resign, to stop, to leave-off. So the NIV translates it ‘be men of courage’.
But this rather misses the sense and the subtlety of the New Testament Greek. The word ‘quit’ here means ‘act’: ‘behave like men. Yet even this is much more elaborate than Paul’s Greek, which just has one word: andrizesthel It is an imperative, a word of command, and it means simply ‘be men. But what is it to ‘be a man’? Paul’s meaning is clear from the context, where there are four imperatives in the one verse: watch, stand fast in the faith, be men, be strong.
A man’s a man
The important thing, for our purposes, is that Paul evidently expected his readers to know exactly what he meant by ‘being men. Moreover, he obviously thought this was a good thing, indeed that it was what we would call a virtue. It is as much a virtue as what Paul goes on to say in the next verse: ‘Do everything in love.’
We would have no problem recognizing this as a Christian virtue. But the next thing to notice, therefore, is that there is no contradiction between the virtue of ‘doing everything in love’ and the virtue of ‘being men’. Paul does not address one command to the tough types and another to the tender types: you tough types be men, and you tender types be loving. No, there is one connected thought: ‘Be watchful, stand fast in the faith, be men, be strong, do everything in love.’
The point is, we do not have to give up being men to be good Christians. It is not a case of ‘be less of a man, be more of a lover’. The Christian man can and must do both. His identity as a man must be moulded by his Christianity.
But at the same time, he must bring his manliness to his Christianity. If we are to be men of God’s word we must be men. We cannot obey Paul’s command and at the same time not bring to the table what Paul commands us to bring.
Men of courage?
One of my favourite maxims, however, is that our strength is always our weakness. The very thing that is our best point is often also the key to our worst point. The intellectual is sometimes too cerebral, the feeling person does not think enough, and so on. And so when it comes to the Christian life, the very thing that makes men ‘manly’ is the thing that will most readily prevent them being good Christians.
Amongst men, courage may arise out of a sense of reputation. In his book Redcoat, Richard Holmes writes this about officers and men in the eighteenth-century British army: A soldier of the 95th who helped bandsman carry wounded to the rear was shunned by his former comrades, and [Private Edward] Costello thought that ‘no good soldier would venture, under so frivolous a pretext, to expose himself to the indignation of his comrades, excepting for any very extreme cases.’ At the Alma, Colin Campbell widened the field in which status could be lost by warning that any solider who left the ranks to help the wounded would have his name posted up in his parish kirk.’
Benjamin Harris observed that, ‘It is indeed curious how much a man loses or gains caste with his comrades from his behaviour, and how closely he is observed in the field. The officers, too, are commented on and closely observed. Their men are very proud of those who are brave in the field and kind and considerate to the men under them.’
Courage is motivated by what men think of one another, and by what men think other men think of them.
The problem for men of faith, then, is not that they are afraid of being religious, but that they are afraid of being thought to be soft or cowardly by other men. This goes a long way to explaining why mosques are full of men and churches are largely empty.
Islam is a man’s religion in every sense. The men are in control. The men are the ones who pray in the main part of the mosque. The women are sent in and out through the side door and made to sit in a separate room, out of sight of the men and often unable to see or be seen by the male preacher.
More insidiously, but just as importantly, the heroes of Islam are the muja-hideen – the warriors who fight in the cause of Islam. People may not like the idea, but no one is going to think someone is ‘unmanly’ for embracing Islam.
On the contrary, to embrace Islam itself says to other men that you are a ‘man of courage’. To embrace Christianity, however, is to have one’s courage called into question.
A different kind of courage
What being a man of God’s word calls for, therefore, is the courage to risk being misunderstood – the courage that risks being marginalized and isolated. Yet this courage was also once counted a virtue. It is celebrated in Kipling’s poem, If:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise
…and so on.
And significantly, Kipling’s poem ends after all these ‘ifs’,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
The man does not, according to this poem, count the opinions of other men too highly, and for this reason, has a reputation amongst men.
But are these cultural values or Christian virtues? I would venture to say they are (or were) common virtues, but with a Christian nuance or expression. Courage, for example, is a common virtue. The Christian nuance is to offset the obvious manly virtues with the not so obvious. It occurs where Paul says, ‘Be men, do everything in love.’
It is the virtue which Christ commends when he says, ‘Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’ People have laid down their lives for all sorts of things, and it takes courage to do so. But Christ commended it above all when it is done out of love.
However, if the primary concern is merely a matter of ‘saving face’, of not being reviled or seen to be a coward, that leads not to virtuous behaviour but to vice. It is the constant emphasis on ‘saving face’ which seems to lead to so many teenage knifings and killings – what the Detroit police in one study called ‘trivial altercation homicides. The rational fear of fighting or being hurt is overcome by a bigger fear, of being seen to be slighted. By contrast, the Christian is called to set self aside, and so courage serves others, not self. And this produces a unique character.
Theodore Dalrymple has written of the British character as it once was. ‘Many [foreign observers] remarked upon the gentleness of British behaviour in public. Homicidal violence and street robberies were vanishingly rare…
Vast sporting crowds would gather in such good order that sporting events resembled church meetings, as both George Orwell and anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer (writing in 1955) noted… ‘The crowds were almost self-regulating; as late as the early Sixties, the British read with incredulity reports that, on the Continent, wire barriers, police baton charges, and tear gas were often necessary to control crowds… ‘The English must have been the only people in the world for whom a typical response to someone who accidentally stepped on one’s toes was to apologize oneself
It is not, obviously, that only Christians could be polite, or that only the English could be modest. But I would venture to suggest that over centuries of exposure, the Christian Gospel impinged upon the English character.
The English of long ago had a bad reputation. The English of the present also have that reputation. It was for a brief period that things so coincided as to produce a noble national character.
Now it is down to the individual. We can no longer rely on our culture to instil that character.
And so we must hear and respond to Paul’s imperative, ‘Quit yourselves like men. Do everything in love.’