In 1997 Paula Cole sang, “Where have all the cowboys gone?”. The meaning of the song has been taken in different ways but it seems that Cole was expressing something of the tension of the 90’s man. My teenage years took place in England during the 90’s, and I too felt something of this tension. The term ‘metro-sexual’ hadn’t yet been coined and there was still the expectation of men to be tough, strong and physically capable. This came with a shift in the emotional and domestic expectations on men. “I’m a man of the 90’s” would come dancing off the lips of guys who started paying more attention to learning to cook than how to change a spark plug. Gender stereotypes were being challenged, it began to be socially acceptable for men to moisturise and discuss hair products. (I’m a cocoa butter man myself)
As a casual observer what seems to have followed is a challenging time of testing gender stereotypes and roles, people (especially men) seem to have built their self-understanding on shifting sands. Self-assured men and boys seem to be polarised between flamboyant eye-liner-wearing metro’s and misogynistic-chauvinist bully-boys. Left in the middle clambering for a foothold are the rest of us, with few strong male role models left in the home, the big screen and especially in spheres of leadership. “Where is my John Wayne?” asked Cole, but today the John Wayne’s of this world don’t measure up to the expectations of men to be as adapt at expressing their emotions as fixing a leaky tap. (N.B. I am not saying this in support of strict gender stereotypes, just as an observation of the shift in western culture).
When the film adaptation of Tolkein’s “Return of the King” was released in cinemas there seemed to be a surge in machismo in the Church. Men started to grow beards and go to conferences with their faces painted blue like Braveheart. Christian men loved the portrayal of Aragorn – the fearless leader, the sensitive romantic and the formidable warrior. Something left dormant in many Church boys sprung to life, the masculinity they had been told was unchristian and out-of-date was portrayed in a positive light. But Aragorn was neither pretty-boy nor meathead. Viggo Mortensen portrayed him as the complete man, who could inspire courage in his followers, overwhelm his enemies with strength and martial prowess, all the while composing love sonnets in a foreign dialect and discussing politics with royalty. Here is a near-archetypal portrayal of an almost forgotten trope – the Warrior Poet.
But Tolkein was not the first to put pen to paper in celebration of this character ideal. Many old and ancient cultures lauded the Warrior Poet as the all-round man. The Samurai devoted equal time to learning poetry and building rock-gardens as developing their impressive swordsmanship, the Vikings wrote sagas of heroes like ‘Egil Skalligrimson’ (roughly translated ‘son of ugly bald-head’) who when he wasn’t single-handedly defeating longboats full of warriors was committing his poetic reflections on life and war to verse. As far back as Julius Caesar and further the Warrior Poet is celebrated as the ultimate leader, but the example I wish to look at in a little more detail is the one described as ‘a man after God’s own heart’ – the revered King David of scripture.
The story of David would do well as a Hollywood blockbuster, a ‘rags to riches’ journey of the poor shepherd boy turned warrior and king. Violence, sex, betrayal and murder all coloured the life of this man, but yet there was something of the divine in him. I’ve always loved to read his story in the Old Testament narrative, it’s exciting, it’s encouraging but most of all it’s incredibly human. Despite the label ‘a man after God’s own heart’ David is not a faultless hero, he struggled, he doubted and he screwed up. Big time. This story connects with the man of the 90s, a story of struggle to find one’s place, of paternal rejection and of battling one’s inner demons. David’s relationship with God had such honesty and integrity, the Psalms are full of examples of him angry and frustrated with God, alongside beautiful and poetic verses of praise.
David was a man’s man, fighting bears, slinging stones, a practical man but with a gentle and reflective heart. A courageous warrior and ingenious tactician. He was an example of the lifelong goal of every warrior poet – to live in balance with the physical and the spiritual. To hold in balance the development of one’s body and one’s mind. A true reflection of the holistic mindset – that body, soul and spirit cannot be separated but are interconnected elements of a whole being. This is an ideal desperately needed in modern times. The men of the 90s who are now beginning to take office in government and business, who are the leaders of today (along with their female counterparts), and who are beginning to lead our churches need to grasp this mindset.
Our outlook on existence has become so fragmented. This is probably due in part to our wholesale embracing of the Greco-Roman approach to education – a compartmentalised approach to the development of the mind. Our children spend an hour trying to think like a mathematician only to be subjected to a heavy-laden 200m sprint to then sit down and try to think like a poet. Then they abandon their studying garb and are expected to energetically engage in sport for an hour (despite being told to sit still the rest of the day). There seems no continuity in how all these fit together. Yet for true growth into maturity and wisdom one must grasp how all things fit together. This is the path of the warrior poet.
I see a desperate need for these heroes of old to rise again. Where are all the Lone Rangers? Where is my Superman? (As Cole Sang) Rarely in government. Rarely teaching our children. And sadly rarely leading our Churches. Have the warrior poets died out? Not at all. But most live a solitary life, at the fringes of a society which has rejected the necessity of their existence. Which doesn’t understand the need for this mindset to bring all things together. To be a friend to fighter and academic alike. The warrior poets I meet are not successful in business or speaking at Christian conferences but are leading motorcycle clubs, are scribbling prophetic utterances never to been seen by a sceptical Church, are winning battles in their own spheres unnoticed and unrecognised by the mainstream.
So I raise a glass to you my brothers, don’t conform, don’t give up, keep fighting and keep thinking. We need you.
“A Psalm of David:
Blessed be the Lord my Rock, Who trains my hands for war, And my fingers for battle— My lovingkindness and my fortress, My high tower and my deliverer, My shield and the One in whom I take refuge, Who subdues my people under me.”
Psalms 144:1, 2 NKJV