Churches Could Learn A Lot From Medieval Reenactors

02/21/2017 01:16 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2017

Recently, I was told a story about a couple in the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA), a medieval reenactment group, who ran a sword fighting academy. During the day, most of their students were homeschooled children who needed a certified course to satisfy state physical education requirements. Hanging on the wall of their school was a banner with the 7 chivalric virtues; courage, justice, mercy, generosity, faith (loyalty), nobility, and hope.

These homeschooled students usually came in one of two flavors: fundamentalist Christian and crunchy hippy granola. Thus, it came as something of a surprise to the owners of the academy when they repeatedly received the same comments from both types of parent: “We’re so glad we finally found someone shares our values.”

This is interesting in several ways. First is the obvious irony is that the two groups of homeschoolers come from parents with completely different sets of religious beliefs. It is also ironic that the majority of Evangelicals believe that a person cannot be a good unless they are co-religionists. The least obvious observation is that while fundamentalist Christians claim to share values with the SCA members, the empirical evidence suggests that most Christian denominations are worse at getting people to follow these tenets than people with no faith at all.

In 2015 a study came out that found children raised in religious households were less altruistic, less kind, and less generous than children raised in non-religious households. The study also found that the more time children spent in a religion, the meaner and greedier they became. Other studies have found this to be true in adults as well. Also, less than one-tenth of one percent of people in federal prisons are atheists. A slim majority of Americans believe that you can’t truly be an American without being a Christian.

This leads to the suggestion that somehow Christian education, upbringing, and observance does not result in people being more likely to practice the values and behaviors they are being taught to observe. Having spent some time among people in this medieval reenactment society, and 16 years in various churches, I observed that the SCA seemed to be comparatively in successful practicing the values they espouse, which led me to ask why this was the case.

Bottom line up front, the two organizations use completely opposed methods for teaching, encouraging, and eliciting behaviors which exemplify core values. Here are the key differences I observed.

1. The SCA has a practicum

As a Naval Aviator, I saw how they train people to get people to perform behaviors by placing them in highly stressful situations and making them practice these behaviors in the cockpit repeatedly. Similarly SCA events, particularly fighting, put people in physically demanding and highly competitive situations while expecting them to practice the chivalric values. People are watching you, and you are expected to be mindful of these at all times.

Trust me, being thee soul of grace when you are heat exhausted, dehydrated, and clubbed like a baby seal is hard (and I have failed at times), but it is expected anyway.

In all the churches I have belonged to and visited, no such training program exists. It is primarily hypotheticals taught in Sunday school. Most of the time, no one is watching outside that hour every few Sundays.

2. Expectations of behavior in the SCA increase as seniority does

In the SCA, the more senior and higher your position is within the society, the more eyes you have on you. There is also a commensurately higher expectation of exemplifying these virtues at all times. There are plenty of stories about people who fail at living up to the responsibilities of their rank being blackballed from responsibility, or kicked out of the society.

Conversely, in many Evangelical denominations, expectations drop drastically the further up you go. Mistresses, mansions, drugs, spousal abuse, Lear jets, you name it; all is forgivable if you’re large and in charge. Similarly, leaders of the Catholic Church who covered up the child molestation scandals claimed they did not even know it was illegal.

3. The SCA reinforces behaviors and socialization through play therapy

Play therapy is an actual technique (usually used with children) in which play, often unstructured, is used to build better social interaction. Similarly, SCA events are intended to be a form of unstructured play, where the primary goals are to have fun, and to interact with other people in ways that fit within the chivalric code.

Conversely, Church was anything but fun for me. It was not interactive. It was not dynamic or unstructured. My experiences with most church services is you sit down, listen, sing the songs they tell you to sing, talk with a few people on the way out, and try to spend the rest of the day having actual fun. Indeed, as a 7 year old, church was much like spending 3 hours with my nose in a corner. Most of my praying involved asking God to make me less bored.

4. The SCA is all about the carrot

SCA events make a big deal about recognizing people who make a sincere effort, and who visibly live up to the ideals of the organization. The rewards aren’t monetary; they primarily involve recognition and esteem of others (and sometimes beautifully hand-illuminated scrolls). The difference is that this happens at every event, and is usually the biggest part of the formal activities. Providing tacit approval and reward for behaving in particular ways is central to SCA events and activities. Additionally, if someone takes a break from the SCA, the reaction is basically, “Ok, we will miss you and you’re welcome back anytime.”

Conversely, my experiences with Christianity involved almost zero up front reward, and plenty of promises of the stick. The focus was mostly on things that will send you to hell (or a version of heaven that sucks in comparison with the one good people get to go to). The reward for everything was, “you’ll get it when you’re dead.” For a young person of marginal faith, that works out to, “maybe in 60 years, probably never.” There’s also the message that if you leave the church, you may be shunned, lose your community, and go to Hell.

5. In the SCA, how you behave is more important than what you believe

What matters most in the SCA is how you behave. A person can spout forth about virtue as much as they want, and claim to have it in their heart, but if they don’t practice what they preach they’re not welcome, much less esteemed.

Evangelical Christianity takes the opposite approach. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you have Jesus in your heart when you die you’re good to go. Indeed, there is a demonstrated willingness to embrace people whose values, and how they live their lives, are antithetical to what they claim their values are.

6. Your day job doesn’t matter

At SCA events, people don’t talk about their jobs. I have no idea what most people there do for a living because it is irrelevant to what sort of person they are. This is also true of leaders within the group. Wealth, and position, outside to organization is irrelevant to how an individual is esteemed, and whether they are considered fit to lead. Demonstrating the seven virtues is far more important than how much money you make or what your job title is.

Conversely, American Christianity frequently associates wealth with Godliness. In the Mormon Church, how much you tithe is often seen as a factor in deciding local and top level leadership. When I lived in Jacksonville, some upscale local churches wouldn’t let you join without showing your W-2. Then there’s the entire concept of the prosperity gospel, and the assumption that poverty is a result of sin.

Again, values are treated as less important than something else (wealth) that is not an intrinsic signal of virtue or vice.

7. The SCA is inclusive

The SCA has a reputation for being queer friendly, and extending the concept of “mercy” to encompass not using words, attitudes, or deeds to hurt others, and thereby fostering peace and community. In practice, this looks a lot like acceptance, or at a minimum treating others in a way you would wish to be treated. There is also an implicit recognition that LGBT people, or anyone else (Muslims, atheists, immigrants, etc…), can exemplify the chivalric values.

Conversely, much of American Christianity today is exclusionary. Less than 1% of Protestant churches (approximately 1,350 out of about 300,000) are open and affirming. This sends the message that if you are LGBT you cannot be a good person, regardless of anything else, including adherence to the seven chivalric virtues. It also (again) sends the message that being any of these things is much less important than not being LGBT.

Conclusion:

This article is not meant as an advertisement for the SCA (unless you’re really into medieval reenactment, then please check it out.) It is also not meant to describe all people and all religions; this is based on my own recollections of 16 years of church attendance and how values were taught to me there. It is meant to show that two groups of people can claim to hold the same values, teach them different ways, and achieve radically different results.

If we really do value courage, justice, mercy, generosity, faith (loyalty), nobility, and hope as virtues, we need to change the way we teach and demonstrate them. The way religions all too often approach them, with words and not deeds, sticks instead of carrots, delaying promise of gratification and reward into the afterlife, no practicum, and (boring) one sided lectures, these methods are unlikely to adjust the behaviors of most people.

Simultaneously, many churches send the message that these values aren’t really that important. Words and belief are more important actions. Values can be safely ignored if you’re high up the food chain. Wealth is a better indicator of a person’s virtue than how they conduct themselves. An LGBT person cannot be a good person; even if they are a paragon of the seven virtues (i.e. not being queer is more important than how you treat others).

It seems doubtful that this article would change much of anything at a macro level. However, it may grant some insight into why religion is often worse than no religion at all in inspiring, convincing, and teaching people to live by the values they claim to espouse.

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